Saturday marks a year since the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs eliminated the constitutionally protected right to abortion and made the health, safety, and freedom of America’s women and gender minorities dependent on the whims of their state legislatures.
Since then, blue states have forged ahead to expand access to abortion, while Republican-controlled states have dug through their bag of revanchist tricks to maximally restrict access. One of Republicans’ newest tricks, however, goes beyond just banning abortion at the state level. Rather, in the year since Dobbs, Republican-controlled state legislatures have been busy preempting localities from using their own authority to protect people seeking abortion care. As cities become bluer and our state legislatures grow ever more polarized, the outcome of this politicized game will define nothing short of our lives and our futures.
Preemption is a legal doctrine that allows a higher level of government, like a state legislature, to curtail the authority of a lower level of government, like a city council, to act on a particular issue. In an alarming trend, Republican-led state legislatures have increasingly used preemption to prohibit local governments from enacting progressive policies. These measures affect not just abortion but also policies like raising minimum wages, requiring employers to provide paid sick leave, banning plastic bags, implementing environmental standards, and protecting civil rights. This year alone, the Local Solutions Support Center has identified over 650 abusive preemption bills moving in state legislatures. The most recent example is in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott last week signed into law a piece of legislation nicknamed the “Death Star” bill, for the dramatic lengths it goes to overturn local officials’ power.
These bills are often cut-and-paste legislation hawked by conservative groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council to advance their national agenda through the states. While ALEC and other right-wing bill mills have churned out regressive state bills since the 1970s, this new preemption push is particularly abusive. Notably, some of these new state laws actually punish cities by imposing additional liability or withholding funds. The sheer quantity and pervasiveness of recent state preemption laws severely curtail the operational autonomy of local governments. And while past bill-mill activities largely prioritized pro-business interests, these preemption bills are veering further into social and health matters like abortion access.
This new surge of preemption predominantly stems from Republican-controlled legislatures desperate to maintain minority rule as local governments strive to represent the voices of their residents. Metropolitan centers are becoming more diverse and younger, with a more progressive voting base. City councils, county commissions, and school boards are increasingly electing young, progressive, reflective leaders seeking to govern collaboratively with their communities and transform local government into innovative policy laboratories.
In response, Republicans have added preemption to their arsenal of rules-rigging, which has long focused on gerrymandering and voter suppression to dilute the voting influence of those living in and around metropolitan centers. These anti-democratic measures often seek to suppress the voices of Black voters in particular, and can be traced back to white supremacist backlash to Reconstruction, when thousands of Black leaders ascended to public office. Today’s metropolitan residents, however, are not the only ones who suffer from the impacts of abusive state preemption. Rural areas also suffer, as preemption hinders local governments from addressing urgent concerns like housing, the environment, and of course, abortion.
Since Dobbs, red states have taken aim at local efforts to protect and advance abortion access. By April 22, state legislatures had already introduced 100 bills to preempt local abortion protections. For instance, Tennessee enacted a law barring local governments from offering insurance coverage for abortion to municipal employees, or from creating funding sources for people to travel to another state for abortion care. Florida’s legislature passed a six-week abortion ban that blocks local governments from providing their employees and contractors with travel funds to seek such care outside the state.
As some county-level prosecutors in states with restricted access have vowed to use their discretion to deprioritize criminalizing abortion providers and people seeking abortions, state legislatures have sought to strip away their power. In May, Georgia enacted a law that gives a new state commission the power to discipline or remove local prosecutors. Meanwhile, the Texas legislature is trying to preempt local governments from providing practical support, such as covering childcare or travel expenses, to people seeking abortion care out of state. And in response to New Orleans’s efforts to decriminalize abortion, Louisiana’s attorney general is delaying a $39 million line of credit for a critical flood mitigation project the city needs to protect its residents.
And these efforts do not even encompass the new efforts to restrict ballot initiatives, like in Ohio, where Republicans plan to hold a special August election to raise the threshold for a constitutional amendment—with the explicit aim of blocking abortion protections and again subverting the will of the people.
With preemption more prevalent in the South, where abortion is most restricted, these laws have disproportionate impacts by race, place, and income. Decades of policies rooted in systemic racism here have left people struggling, with those who are young, LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, and people of color bearing the brunt of these restrictive policies.
Post-Roe, localities are working hard to protect residents from regressive state-level policies and push for abortion access, particularly in Republican-controlled states with draconian bans. Despite some ongoing efforts to fortify local government authority through home rule reform, the reality remains: As long as state legislatures wield preemptive power, right-wing lawmakers will continue to use preemption as a weapon against essential reproductive health care and abortion access. As we fight for abortion rights at every level of government, we should recognize that cities are critical battlegrounds for access. And we must look beyond our blue cities too, and fight to build pro-abortion power in our state legislatures, which are growing in power, and where control of entire legislative chambers is often decided by a tiny number of votes. The fate of our bodies, our livelihoods, our very future is at stake.