Anti-abortion law spreads in East Texas as "sanctuary city for the unborn" movement expands

Texas Tribune News

Anti-abortion protesters march at the Rally for Life at the Texas Captiol.
Anti-abortion protesters march at the Rally for Life at the Texas Captiol.
Shelby Knowles for The Texas Tribune

City council meetings in East Texas address typical small-town issues, such as road contract approvals, tree removal, and street closures for fall festivals and high school homecoming parades.

But a far more controversial agenda item has been appearing in this deeply conservative region of rural America: abortion.

Labeling it “murder with malice,” a growing number of town councils have been passing abortion bans and declaring themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn.” Five towns have adopted the restrictive ordinance, which outlaws emergency contraception such as Plan B, criminalizes reproductive rights groups and fines doctors $2,000 for performing the procedure. A sixth East Texas town has adopted a more lenient version of the ordinance.

The activist behind the movement, Mark Lee Dickson, said he and anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life plan to travel to more than 400 Texas municipalities to pitch the ban.

“This is a local issue because it impacts the most vulnerable — the unborn child,” Dickson said. “If we could do this in Texas, we can do this in cities and towns in Arizona, in Florida, in Iowa. It could happen all over the country.”

Texas has always been at the center of the abortion wars. Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion nationwide, originated in the state. But this year, Texas didn’t follow other Republican-held state legislatures in passing a “heartbeat law” that outlaws abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.

Dismayed by the lack of state action, Dickson and other antiabortion activists are bringing their cause “straight to the people” and lobbying town governments more adept at trash collection contracts than matters of constitutional law.

None of the new “sanctuary cities” — most with populations under 3,000 — have abortion clinics, but Dickson’s goal is to prevent health centers that perform the procedure from moving into Waskom, Joaquin and other towns that adopt the restriction. Dickson also hopes to attract a legal challenge that forces the Supreme Court to reconsider Roe v. Wade.

But hundreds of miles west of these deep-red towns, another Texas city council is pushing the state’s abortion politics in the opposite direction.

The Austin City Council last month approved $150,000 for transportation, hotels and other costs for women seeking abortions, particularly those living in towns known as “abortion deserts,” places at least 100 miles away from an abortion facility.

“The right to an abortion is meaningless if it is not accessible,” said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. The anti-abortion “ordinances are unconstitutional and illegal and meant to confuse people.”

On his website, Dickson labels Austin a “city of death.”

“Austin is going in the complete opposite direction of what we are doing,” said Dickson, 34. “I think it’s amazing that little ol’ Waskom is on the lips of the people of Austin. It’s time for the smaller cities to start impacting the bigger.”

An all-male council voted in June to make Waskom the first city to adopt the ordinance, which forbids Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and other “criminal organizations” that offer or assist in obtaining abortions from operating in the city. It declares that providing money, transportation or other aid to a person for an abortion is unlawful, and it allows would-be relatives of the unborn to sue those who do.

The ordinance is only criminally enforceable if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. But in civil cases, Dickson said, local courts could enforce the ordinance in a lawsuit against someone who provides emergency contraception or performs an abortion in the town limits.

“This is a gray area,” said Greg Hutson, city manager of Gilmer, the most recent town to adopt the abortion ban. “This part could well be the vehicle that challenges Roe v. Wade.”

Waskom, a town of about 2,200, sits on the Louisiana border, with the nearest abortion clinic about 20 miles away in Shreveport. Dickson, who calls abortion clinics the “extermination camps of our day,” describes himself as “a fixture” at the clinic, where he tries to convince women to “stop the murder of your child.” If a woman agrees, he takes her for a meal and buys a “heartbeat bear,” which plays a recording of the vibrations that become a heartbeat.

Dickson, pastor of Sovereign Love Church in Longview, also keeps a bear for himself, which he carries to town council meetings. Sporting a beard and a backward baseball cap, he plays the bear’s “whump, whump” recording for town leaders and makes the case for his abortion ban.

Some of the smaller towns that Dickson has approached passed the ordinance without controversy.

“The majority of us don’t want the blood of these babies on our hands,” said Deborah Ramsey, Republican chair for Morris County, where the Omaha City Council unanimously passed the ordinance Sept. 9. The neighboring town of Naples did the same in a 5-to-1 vote.

“If we have to do it a town at a time, that’s the way we are going to do it,” Ramsey said.

The lone dissenting vote in Naples came from Councilman Danny Mills, who said he doesn’t support abortion personally but thinks it should remain a personal choice.

Mills, who served several terms as mayor, said he felt blindsided by the ordinance and didn’t like Dickson’s “theatrics” of the heartbeat bears.

“He came into our town out of the clear blue sky,” Mills said in a phone interview. “I just couldn’t see draining this tiny town’s mayor and police tending to somebody else’s private business to get an abortion.”

As Dickson has expanded the movement outside of East Texas and into larger towns, the ordinance has encountered more hurdles, including town attorneys concerned about potential legal fees.

In Mineral Wells, a city of 15,000 people about 80 miles west of Dallas, the council voted 5 to 2 against acting on the ordinance in July, at the recommendation of the city’s legal staff.

Most recently, the town of Gilmer — population 5,000 — voted 4 to 1 to adopt the ordinance, but only after removing several provisions, including the ban on emergency contraception and language that criminalized reproductive rights groups and classified abortion as murder.

Instead of using the phrase “sanctuary city for the unborn,” the council is calling its town “a safe haven for the unborn,” said Hutson, the Gilmer city manager.

“Portions of his ordinance are inflammatory, throwing gasoline on the fire,” said Hutson, who added that he’s been unsettled by residents’ hateful discord over the ordinance online. “We are a pro-life town. But for the sake of the country, the two sides have to come together and learn to talk about this in a kind way.”

Many of the town ordinances do not make exceptions for rape or incest, but all allow an abortion if the pregnancy “places the woman in danger of death or a serious risk of substantial impairment of a major bodily function.” And while they target anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion within city limits, the ordinance holds that “no punishment shall be imposed upon the mother of the pre-born child.”

There have been no legal challenges yet, though the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said its lawyers are reviewing the ordinances, calling them “misguided attempts by small towns to encroach on fundamental constitutional rights of women.”

“We are keeping all options, including legal action, open as we investigate further,” said Imelda Mejia, communications coordinator for the organization.

In response to the ordinance, abortion rights groups NARAL and the Lilith Fund have put up a billboard outside of Waskom proclaiming, “Abortion is Freedom.”

Amanda Beatriz Williams, executive director of the Lilith Fund, which provides financial assistance to women seeking abortions, said the abortion-ban ordinance “is just an illegal and wacky strategy that shows the desperation of the anti-abortion movement.”

She attended a hearing in Austin at which Dickson played the teddy-bear heartbeats. His abortion-ban ordinance lists the Lilith Fund as a “criminal organization.”

“It’s really about shaming and manipulating women,” Williams said. “We will be fighting these bans in every town. We won’t stop.”