Inside the Plan to End Legal Abortion

Inside the Plan to End Legal Abortion

Whiteface is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it blip in Texas’s oil patch 50 minutes west of Lubbock that only a few hundred people call home, so tiny that describing it as a small town would be a stretch. But on a rainy evening in mid-March, several dozen of its residents along with people from neighboring towns crammed into a worn-down community center on the town’s main strip for a meeting of Whiteface’s elected officials, an unusually large audience for their regular council meeting.

“I know y’all aren’t here to listen to our business,” joked one of the council members. And it was true. That night, the council would be voting on an anti-abortion ordinance that, if passed, would make Whiteface the latest so-called “sanctuary city for the unborn” in the state. With its approval, Whiteface would join a dozen other Texas towns that in recent months had declared abortion to be murder and announced that abortions (and in some towns, even emergency contraception like Plan B) were “unlawful” within the town’s limits; some of the ordinances, too, designated a list of the state’s leading abortion providers and advocacy groups as “criminal entities.” The crowd in the sparsely decorated community center, crammed into rows of red and yellow plastic chairs, had amassed to show their support for the ordinance, and to urge the Whiteface council to officially designate the town a self-proclaimed “sanctuary city for the unborn.”

These ordinances generated national media coverage and put abortion rights advocates once again on the defensive, sowing more uncertainty about the state of abortion access in Texas. If a city declaring itself an abortion sanctuary is a way to make a statement, it’s largely a symbolic designation, at least legally—Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. But it’s also true that in Texas, the protections of Roe have been gutted so systematically by the state legislature in recent decades that the constitutional right to an abortion is more of an aspiration than an ironclad guarantee.

Even before the ordinances began passing, according to advocates, some residents already believed that abortions were against the law. “We’ll overhear conversations and have conversations with folks who are seeking abortions who think they are currently seeking abortions illegally,” Kamyon Conner, the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, an abortion fund primarily working in north Texas and one of the groups targeted in the ordinance, told me in February. “People don’t exactly know that they have the right to have an abortion in the state of Texas.” To Conner, the ordinances were just another crisis manufactured by anti-abortion extremists. “They are political stunts meant to confuse people about their rights, shame people who need an abortion, and intimidate organizations who help people access this care,” she said.

The “criminal entity” designation had generated uncertainty about whether the groups like the TEA Fund and the Lilith Fund, an abortion fund that operates in south and central Texas, could continue to provide even something as simple as know-your-rights materials to residents. “We shouldn’t have to ask an attorney whether or not we can execute a core part of our mission,” the Lilith Fund’s executive director Amanda Beatriz Williams told me. Williams saw the ordinance as a continuation of the orchestrated attacks on abortion access that had turned huge portions of the state into abortion deserts. “There’s a scarcity of resources, a scarcity of clinics, a scarcity of providers in our state, and session after session, they just keep making it worse,” Williams said, referring to restrictions passed by the state’s Republicans. Williams added, “All of these barriers add up and just make it so difficult. And these ordinances are just part of that same agenda.”

“People don’t exactly know that they have the right to have an abortion in the state of Texas.”

Sitting close to the front of the Whiteface community center was Mark Lee Dickson, a petite, scruffy, 34-year-old brunette fond of wearing a backward baseball cap, and the ringleader of the effort to pass the anti-abortion ordinances in the state. Joe Pojman, the head of Texas Alliance for Life, described Dickson to me as a “Johnny Appleseed going from town to town.” In June of 2019, Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas—a church pastor, long-time abortion clinic protester, and self-professed virgin—brought the ordinance to the mayor and city council of Waskom, which would become the first town in Texas to take it up. Texas Right to Life, the state’s more aggressive anti-abortion group, soon threw their support behind the movement, and the ordinance was soon adopted in various forms by other towns, spreading from the eastern part of the state to west Texas.

Waskom’s leaders had stated their main goal was to prevent an abortion clinic from opening in their town of about 2,000 residents; the town, located right next to the state’s border with Louisiana, was only a 25-minute drive from Shreveport’s Hope Medical Group abortion clinic, the provider at the heart of the Supreme Court case that anti-abortion advocates are hoping will “overthrow Roe without overthrowing Roe.” In his pitch, Dickson had claimed that Hope Medical Group might close up shop and move across the border to Waskom. As Waskom’s mayor Jesse Moore told the Marshall News Messenger, “The citizens in Waskom, they don’t want to have an abortion clinic in Waskom.”

I drove through Waskom a few days earlier, stopping there and in other towns that had dubbed themselves abortion sanctuaries. The drive was dotted with signs that made the political sympathies of many of the residents clear—Trump’s Keep America Great reelection signs, at least two homes proudly waving Confederate flags, signs proclaiming “Jesus is Alive.” One of the first things I saw when I arrived at the edge of town was a sign urging people to “respect life from conception to natural death.” Waskom’s ordinance had also prohibited the sale of emergency contraception, though even that was more aspirational—the sole pharmacy in Waskom didn’t even sell Plan B. In town, I met Lana, a young blonde woman who worked at the Family Dollar and told me she had four children. “I’m totally against abortion and I agree with the town,” she told me, adding, “I heard they were trying to put an abortion clinic here.”

The restrictions on abortion providers have all but ensured that towns like Waskom will never see an abortion clinic open its doors

She didn’t specify who “they” were, but at any rate, the rumors ginned up by Dickson weren’t true—no abortion clinic was planning to come to Waskom, or to any of the other towns in east Texas that had passed these ordinances. Some of these towns didn’t even have a medical clinic. If the idea had been floated in the early ’90s by Hope Medical’s then-director Robin Rothrock, no one credible had brought up the idea since then. All of the restrictions on abortion providers passed in the state legislature in the decades since have all but ensured that towns like Waskom will never see an abortion clinic open its doors.

In late February, the ACLU of Texas, on behalf of both the Lilith Fund and the TEA Fund, sued seven of the towns over their attempt to criminalize the work of abortion providers and advocacy groups. But the threat of legal action hadn’t deterred Dickson from taking ads out in local newspapers and crisscrossing the state in his truck to meet with local elected officials and churches in towns he hoped would join his movement. For years a regular and disruptive presence outside of Shreveport’s Hope Medical Group, where one clinic escort described Dickson to me as a sort of “domestic terrorist,” he cut down his trips to Shreveport. He had found a new calling.

“Abortion teaches that a mother has the right to determine if her child should live or die,” Dickson told me a few hours before the Whiteface meeting, when we met at a coffee shop in the nearby town of Levelland. “That’s just a very dangerous slippery slope that people are on.” Dickson’s anti-abortion activism runs in the family; his grandfather too was once the head of Right to Life of East Texas. The 34-year-old’s views—that abortion is murder, that even pregnancies resulting from rape or incest should be carried to term, and that a situation where the pregnant person’s life is at risk is not enough of a reason to get an abortion—are extreme, until one remembers that they have in recent years become mainstream, at least within the anti-abortion movement. “When you say that a mother gets to determine [whether] her child has value, at what point does that stop?” Dickson said. Men, he told me, are the unacknowledged victims. “We are living in a world where a lot of people shout equality, but the way it looks, fathers don’t have any kind of say-so at all, if the life of the child is ended,” he said. His views on men’s rights may explain why the ordinances also included a provision that would allow a relative of the “aborted unborn child” to sue someone for performing an abortion within the town’s limits. “It’s interesting that the women tend to have more rights than men, that women tend to have that option to end the life of their child,” he said.

Dickson’s goal is to ban abortions by overturning Roe. While the ordinance is typically described as Dickson’s brainchild, springing forth from his head fully formed, it’s more accurate to describe it as a team effort. According to Dickson, the initial idea for the ordinance was inspired by an amendment tucked into the state’s Senate Bill 22, a 2019 bill yet again targeting Planned Parenthood that was passed and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott. The amendment by Republican state representative Jonathan Stickland stated that SB 22 wouldn’t prevent a city or county from “prohibiting” abortions.

“That put the idea in my head that it was doable,” Dickson said. He reached out to his state senator Bryan Hughes, who according to Dickson “brought someone on board” to help write the boilerplate text for the ordinance that was ultimately brought to the town of Waskom. Dickson told me that “several attorneys were involved”; while he declined to elaborate further, rumors have circulated in the advocacy community that Dickson worked with the high-profile conservative attorney Jonathan Mitchell, the former state solicitor general who has in the past worked with the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Texas Alliance for Life. Mitchell also just happens to be representing the seven towns sued by the ACLU. (Mitchell did not respond to Jezebel’s request for comment.)

In Whiteface, Dickson clutched what had become his standard prop—a ragged blue teddy bear with an ultrasound photo of a fetus on its belly. With him were two women from neighboring towns who planned on testifying that evening, both God-fearing women who had had abortions in the past and, unlike the vast majority of people who get abortions, had come to regret their decision.

Whiteface, like a huge swathe of this part of the state, is about 300 miles, or an almost five-hour drive, away from the closest abortion clinic, and west Texas’s largest cities—Amarillo, Lubbock, Odessa, and Midland—have the dubious distinction of making up four of the five cities with at least 50,000 residents that are the furthest from an abortion clinic in the entire country. But west Texas wasn’t always an abortion clinic desert, and the fact that residents must go to extreme lengths to get an abortion is by design. In this part of the state, Planned Parenthood once operated four clinics that provided either medication or surgical abortions, but between 2012 and 2014, all four shut down, after the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a series of bills that targeted the ability for clinics to operate.

One of those bills was House Bill 2, which had accelerated the closure of clinics in the state. “You get to a point where the cost factor of trying to [operate a clinic], it just became impossible,” Carla Holeva, the former head of Planned Parenthood of West Texas, which operated three of the clinics, told me. The repercussions have been severe. Today, there are only 22 abortion clinics in the entire state, largely clustered in major cities; in 2011, there were 62 clinics. According to statistics compiled by the state, people living in one west Texas county, Lubbock County, were able to obtain more than 500 abortions in 2012; by 2017, that number had dropped by more than half, a dramatic decline that the Texas Policy Evaluation Project found was directly related to the increased distance people were forced to travel to obtain one.

Dickson clutched what had become his standard prop—a ragged blue teddy bear with an ultrasound photo of a fetus on its belly.

Republicans in the state have largely been successful in gutting Roe without getting rid of Roe. “What good is Roe if you have put all of these blocks in the way? Texas has yet to recover from House Bill 2,” Marsha Jones, the executive director of the Afiya Center, told me. Yet despite the dire state of abortion access in the state, even this sharp decline is not extreme enough for God-fearing Texans like those who gathered in Whiteface. One after another, people stood up to testify in support of the symbolic abortion ban. “There are a lot of options besides abortion,” said Pat Trice, a woman who blamed Roe for not being able to adopt as many children as she had hoped to. “What if Mary and Joseph lived in Whiteface, Texas? Let’s keep God at the center of our town,” Harold Harrison said. Abortion, said Dr. Franklyn Babb, is “anti-human, anti-life, anti-woman.” “I would ask why is it just for a woman to elevate her rights above a baby’s rights? That doesn’t sound like equality to me,” Andy Patterson said.

Towards the end of the evening, Dickson strode up to the podium, as if to give a Sunday sermon. “Some people are maybe resting on the idea that we’re a very pro-life state, and that we have the best pro-life laws in the country,” he said. “Did you hear about Texas passing any aggressive abortion bans this legislative session? No, because we didn’t.” Dickson pointed to the six-week abortions bans passed in Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia, measures that he admired, and which were later blocked by courts as unconstitutional. Dickson clearly saw the ordinances as a replacement for what he viewed as inaction by the state, and he made his pitch.

“Right now in Whiteface, no abortions are happening,” he said. “So passing this ordinance here in Whiteface, how is that creating an undue burden for women who are currently already driving to Dallas or El Paso for an abortion?” He urged the council to take action. “For too long, we have sat by and done nothing. For too long, we have let other people tell us that this is OK, that abortion is OK,” Dickson said. “Well now is your opportunity to stand with cities across Texas and say, ‘Not here in my city.’”

Only one woman spoke against the ordinance. “Our community becomes a pawn in somebody else’s game and agenda,” she pleaded, but the mood of the room was clear. When the vote finally came, it was closer than I thought it would be—three for, two against. Cheers erupted from the audience; the woman sitting behind me began crying out of joy.

“First one since the lawsuit,” Dickson said with a smile. As people hugged each other and gave each other high fives, he sat back down, eager to update his website and his Facebook page with the breaking news.

A few days later, I flew back home to New York City; by then, fears of the spread of covid-19 were just beginning to turn from a trickle into a flood. As a born-and-raised Texan, I have become all too familiar over the years with how the state’s Republican leaders work hand-in-hand with anti-abortion radicals to push an agenda onto a public that doesn’t want it; I thought this story would be yet another outrageous tale of anti-abortion activists building a movement to chip away at abortion rights, in a state where most voters support abortion access.

But then, on March 22, Governor Abbott issued an executive order that postponed all medical procedures he deemed “not immediately medically necessary;” the next day, the state’s Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton ordered abortion clinics to stop providing “any type of abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.” Texas was not alone in using the threat of covid-19 as an excuse to ban abortions, but along with Ohio, it was one of the first—soon after, six other Republican-led states also announced that abortions were not considered essential services during the pandemic. In Texas, Abbott and Paxton claimed these moves were in the name of public safety and necessary to conserve personal protective equipment and hospital beds, claims that were based on a willful misunderstanding of how abortions work and not rooted in medical fact.

What activists like Dickson and all of his supporters wanted—a ban on abortions—had now largely come to pass, with the covid-19 pandemic merely a convenient excuse to make real, if only temporarily, what they and the state’s Republican elected officials have dreamt of all along. On April 22, Abbott’s original executive order was loosened, and abortions could once again proceed in the state. But if nothing else, the confusion and disarray created by the month-long ban, along with the lengths people seeking abortions have been forced to take, show what a post-Roe future in the state might look like. And it has highlighted an obvious truth that anti-abortion activists would prefer to ignore—that banning abortion won’t stop people from doing their damndest to get one, instead just making an abortion much more difficult, more dangerous, and more costly to obtain, a reality that people living in the state’s abortion deserts already know all too well.

“I was around during HB 2, when clinics closed overnight. But I’ve never seen anything like this,” the Lilith Fund’s Williams told me of the ban. “It had a next-level cruelty to it.”

Still, if there’s one thing that the state’s abortion providers and advocates have perfected, it’s how to adapt in remarkably challenging circumstances. After all, they’ve been forced to do that for years. I thought about what the TEA Fund’s Conner had told me weeks earlier about their work against the ordinances. “Having to constantly fight a barrage of new ways to make abortion inaccessible to people, this is not new to us,” she said. “We are diligently fighting, as we always have.”

After the ban came down, staff in the state’s clinics in Austin, Fort Worth, and McCallen were forced to cancel 150 appointments that evening, according to Amy Hagstrom Miller, the CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which runs three abortion clinics in Texas. On March 25, Whole Woman’s Health, along with other abortion providers in Texas, sued the state and sought a temporary restraining order against the ban. What followed was a wildly confusing back-and-forth in the courts in which abortion would be ordered available one day, only for the procedure to be banned yet again. “It’s been whiplash the past few weeks,” Hagstrom Miller told me recently, while the ban was still in effect. Some patients scheduled to get abortions at Whole Woman’s Health clinics ending up having their appointments canceled and then rescheduled three times. “By design, it’s gotten patients and people who need care completely confused,” she said. “For them to come and use the pandemic as an opportunity to malign abortion and to say abortion is not essential healthcare, I can’t say that I’m surprised, because I think Abbott and Paxton are constantly trying to figure out ways to ban abortion in Texas.”

A few days after abortion providers sued the state, a district court judge granted them the temporary restraining order they had sought. Clinic staff immediately called patients whose appointments they had been forced to cancel, staying in the office until the late hours of the evening to do so. According to Hagstrom Miller, some of the people they called were already driving to states like New Mexico and Oklahoma to get abortions there when they were told they could come back to Texas. “And they turned around and came back, and were at the clinic at the crack of dawn,” she said.

But not everyone was able to reschedule their appointments—for a time, only medication abortion, which the state allows up to a limit of 10 weeks, was available (and even medication abortions were prohibited at a later point). During the month the ban was in place, an increasing number of Texans were forced to travel out of state to obtain abortions. “Imagine first being laid off from your job, and then you learn you have to travel thousands of miles in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re alone, you’re pregnant, you’re not sure how you’re going to provide for your family when you get home, and on top of that, you can’t afford to pay for the procedure that can be hundreds or thousands of dollars,” Williams of the Lilith Fund told me. “This is the reality of our callers.”

“We never thought we would have to send anyone to Georgia”

According to data from Planned Parenthood, in the three weeks following Abbott’s executive order, more than 129 Texans traveled to the group’s clinics in Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to obtain abortions, a 700 percent increase from the previous month. And those are just numbers from Planned Parenthood clinics. Hagstrom Miller told me that Whole Woman’s Health clinics referred some patients to clinics in Virginia and Maryland, and one of their patients, a 24-year-old college student who had lost her job as a waitress due to the pandemic, drove to Denver to obtain an abortion, an experience she shared with HuffPost. She had already been to the Whole Woman’s Health clinic in Forth Worth for her first visit when Abbott issued his executive order, and was told at that point, her only option was to go out of state. What should have been a quick follow-up visit to her local clinic turned into a several-day, costly ordeal.

In 2019, clients of the Lilith Fund, which pays for part of the cost of getting an abortion, traveled an average of 158 miles roundtrip to get an abortion—hardly nothing, especially given the fact that in Texas, a law passed in 2011 requires people to schedule two separate appointments in order to get an abortion, with a 24-hour waiting period. During the past month, however, the Lilith Fund’s clients, the majority of whom are unemployed people of color, were forced to travel an average of 600 miles roundtrip and spend on average $2,400 to get an abortion. Recognizing that Texans were leaving the state to obtain abortions due to the ban, the Lilith Fund early on began reaching out to clinics in states like Arkansas, Illinois, and Georgia where they knew people were traveling, so that those clinics could refer their patients from Texas to the fund for financial assistance. “We never thought we would have to send anyone to Georgia,” Williams said.

If the covid-19 pandemic provided Republicans in the state a readymade excuse to try to ban abortion, the environment has been primed for years by activists like Dickson and by the state legislature. “Since I started working in abortion in Texas in 2000, they have passed a regulation on abortion of some kind,” Hagstrom Miller said. “Over time, they have completely changed people’s ability to access abortion.”

But abortion advocates in the state believe that the extreme nature of the abortion ban may galvanize Texans to action in ways that previous restrictions had not. That’s the hope, at least. “There’s a clear understanding that the state of Texas is responsible,” the Lilith Fund’s Williams said. “I hope it’s not forgotten, especially when you look at the specific communities who are harmed the most during this time. And when the governor and the attorney general of the state attack abortion access, they’re attacking people of color and they’re attacking poor folks. And we shouldn’t stand for it.”

Now that the state’s temporary ban has expired, Dickson, for his part, is back to shilling his ordinance. “This next month we are looking forward to seeing more cities in Texas take the same steps that Waskom and other God-fearing cities took to outlaw abortion in their cities and become sanctuary cities for the unborn,” he wrote on his Facebook page at the end of April. “It is time for some more yee-haw and more get ‘er done!” But he may be too optimistic. In early May, the first town to take up the ordinance since Whiteface, the west Texas town of Coahoma, voted on the ordinance and turned him down.

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