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Small towns are passing local laws banning abortions post-Roe V. Wade

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've heard a lot about states passing laws around abortion since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. Well, there's also a fight in some local cities and towns. Elizabeth Rembert of Harvest Public Media reports on one such battle in a Nebraska suburb.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: So this ordinance is to...

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: People have gathered at the corner of a busy intersection here in Bellevue, just outside of Omaha, to collect signatures for a petition that would outlaw abortion. Pink and blue balloons and a big picture of a fetus are tied to a white tent. Margaret Ross lives in the city and stopped to add her signature.

MARGARET ROSS: My perspective comes from a biblical worldview. The sanctity of life is important to God, and so it's important to me.

REMBERT: If the Bellevue City Council approves the proposal or it's voted in through a ballot initiative, anyone who performs or aids an abortion within city limits could be sued by private citizens.

Just down the street from the tent sits an abortion clinic - one of three providers in Nebraska. Only a couple sparse trees separate the signs advertising an abortion-free Bellevue from the clinic's parking lot. No one from the clinic agreed to talk with us, but this is the only place in Nebraska that performs abortions up to 20 weeks, which Chelsea Souder says is a critical resource in the Midwest. She's the head of Nebraska Abortion Resources, a group that helps people seeking abortions with financial support.

CHELSEA SOUDER: Because of all of the many restrictions and now bans that are in many states, that has prolonged people's access to care, which in turn pushes people further in pregnancy. So it's really imperative that we have clinics that can be able to provide that care.

REMBERT: Small towns across Nebraska, Iowa, Ohio, Texas and Louisiana have outlawed abortion within their boundaries to become so-called sanctuary cities for the unborn. Anti-abortion activist Mark Dickson is behind all those ordinances. He crisscrosses the country in his pickup truck, encouraging officials in small cities and towns to ban abortion. Dickson says he's fighting against communities in Illinois, California and New York that call themselves safe havens for people seeking abortions.

MARK DICKSON: The Supreme Court did say that this is an issue to be returned to the states, their people and their elected representatives, and that does include local governments.

REMBERT: But it's not clear how legal the citywide bans are. Anthony Schutz, a law professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says there are two questions at work. Do local governments have the authority to impose bans? And even if cities have that ability, do statewide rules overpower local ones?

ANTHONY SCHUTZ: Those are the deeper questions that we have to answer. And they're not questions about rights. They're questions about local government authority as it relates to the state.

REMBERT: It'll take time to get answers. Schutz says courts don't like to rule on hypotheticals. That likely means someone would have to sue a city for its existing ban.

Back at the tent in Bellevue, Sheila O'Connell signs the petition. She says shutting down the clinic with a local abortion ban is just one part of an incremental approach.

SHEILA O'CONNELL: We have to take it piece by piece by piece. No more giant steps after Roe v. Wade - that was our giant step.

REMBERT: But abortion rights supporter Chelsea Souder believes a Bellevue ordinance would be unenforceable and unconstitutional.

SOUDER: We know that it's really more symbolic than anything at this point.

REMBERT: Still, she says, that doesn't stop it from increasing stigma and confusion as the battle over abortion continues. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Rembert