A handful of small cities and towns in Texas have declared themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn”. These are communities that outlaw abortion within their city limits.
Abortion, however, remains legal within the state of Texas. And abortion is legal throughout the United States, owing to the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade.
This makes such laws, which impose penalties for anyone “aiding and abetting” an abortion, technically unenforceable.
The organization behind this trend, Sanctuaries for the Unborn, is banking on an eventual overturn of Roe v. Wade. This would make the local laws suddenly enforceable—and maybe even retroactively.
The term “sanctuary city” was of course coined on the left. It refers to cities where the local governments have chosen to disregard federal immigration laws.
There is an old word for this: nullification. The basic idea of nullification is that local governments have the right to invalidate, or nullify, federal laws that they disagree with, for one reason or another.
Nullification has also been practiced at the state level. In what became known as the Nullification Crisis of 1832, South Carolina refused to enforce federal tariffs.
During the height of the Nullification Crisis, President Andrew Jackson threatened South Carolina with military action. When a visitor from South Carolina offered to carry home any words that the president might have for the people of his state, Jackson said the following:
“Please give my compliments to my friends in your State and say to them, that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.”
No one is using the term nullification today, but that is effectively what the anti-ICE, sanctuary cities movement amounts to. The Democrat-controlled governments of San Francisco, New York City, and dozens of other smaller cities have effectively decided to nullify U.S. federal immigration laws.
California, meanwhile, now practices a statewide form of nullification—just like South Carolina in 1832. On October 5, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed California Sanctuary Law SB54. This law basically turns all California law enforcement personnel into federal outlaws, as they are prohibited (in most circumstances) from cooperating with ICE officials when handling illegal immigrant suspects.
Language matters, of course. Notice that Chicago doesn’t call itself a “nullification city”. The use of the word “sanctuary” is an attempt to claim the moral high ground.
We should therefore not be surprised that some folks on the right—who hold different concerns—have co-opted the same language. “Sanctuary cities for the unborn” focuses on the parties being protected, not on the federal (or state) laws being violated.
Like “reverse discrimination”, “cultural Marxism”, or “political correctness”, “sanctuary cities for the unborn” is a term that will no doubt drive the progressive crowd absolutely nuts.
In these highly polarized times, many of us believe that Americans on the other side of the political divide are not just misinformed, but morally corrupt, and maybe even downright evil. Therefore, they are completely beyond the reach of reason or persuasion.
If this is what you believe, then it’s a short psychological walk to the tactics of nullification— provided that you live around enough other folks who are similarly minded. In areas that tend to be ideologically uniform (like big cities on both coasts, or small towns in certain red states) a local nullification drive has high chances of success.
Sooner or later, though, there will be a challenge from state or federal authorities. President Trump may not threaten to hang the Governor of California from the nearest tree. (It might not be out of the question, though.) But the Trump administration has already taken measures to penalize sanctuary cities by cutting off portions of their federal funding.
Progressive municipalities that nullify national immigration laws are sowing anarchy. They are also attempting to rewrite immigration laws for all of us, since every community is porous, and connected to the rest of the country.
The “sanctuary cities for the unborn” laws, meanwhile, are mostly symbolic. Most women seeking abortions will be able to travel outside the limits of a small Texas town.
But the symbolism fails, too. This is the kind of law that easily plays into the narrative of pro-life activists as villainous despots from The Handmaid’s Tale. This seems to be an action taken out of political spite, more than anything else.
In addition to its role at the center of the Nullification Crisis of 1832, South Carolina was also the first state to secede from the Union in December 1860, provoking the American Civil War. So-called Fire-Eaters in the state capitol, Columbia, pushed through the legislature a “Resolution to Call the Election of Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President a Hostile Act”. The hysteria over Lincoln in the South in 1860 mirrors the hysteria over President Trump in progressive quarters today.
Nullification—whether it comes from the right or the left—is a bad way to attempt to change state or national laws that one doesn’t like. It may not lead us to civil war. But nullification makes our political system increasingly dysfunctional.