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Fed Up With Legislative Moderation, Texas Anti-Abortion Activists Take to the Cities

Like many anti-abortion activists, Mark Lee Dickson left the 2019 Texas legislative session unsatisfied. Sure, the Legislature, deep red for at least one more election, had passed the "born-alive bill," which mimics a federal law that requires doctors to care for a baby born during an attempted abortion, and another law that prohibits any Texas local government from partnering with an abortion provider in any way.

Texas lawmakers, however, didn't grab the brass ring, declining even to vote on a ban or near ban, like those recently passed in Georgia and Alabama.

Texas Republicans' strategy of gradually limiting abortion by chipping at the foundations of Roe v. Wade isn't good enough for Dickson and others who think that abortion is the new Holocaust and providers like Planned Parenthood or Whole Woman's Health are the new Third Reich.

Mark Lee Dickson, in Austin during the 2019 legislative session.EXPAND
Mark Lee Dickson, in Austin during the 2019 legislative session.
Alex Carter

"We shouldn't be frivolous about the throwing away of human life," says Dickson, unabashedly blowing past Godwin's law and offering a Nazi analogy. "If we are frivolous about the throwing away of human life, then all that does is promote this culture that says certain lives are worth less than other lives, and it promotes suicide and it promotes dehumanization and it promotes ageism. We ought not to be a part of such things. We have seen cultures, like in World War II, the Nazis. They promoted such culture. We should not be people that promote those type of ideologies."

Fed up with the government, Dickson decided to campaign throughout East Texas and beyond, seeking out city councils and county commissioner's courts willing to consider passing an ordinance banning abortion with town limits. So far, he's found success in several small cities and towns in East Texas. 

Following Waskom's decision to declare itself a sanctuary from abortion, NARAL Texas put billboards up near the town.EXPAND
Following Waskom's decision to declare itself a sanctuary from abortion, NARAL Texas put billboards up near the town.
NARAL TX

Dickson's quest was sparked by the Legislature, but rumors gave it direction. As he protested at the Hope Medical Group for Women, an abortion clinic just across the Texas-Louisiana line in Shreveport, he heard whispers that the clinic might look to jump the state border if Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a staunchly anti-abortion Democrat, signed his state's "heartbeat bill." The measure would ban abortion in the Bayou State at about six weeks after conception.

"There was someone at the abortion clinic in Shreveport, one of the people that was there contemplating the abortion had told me on the sidewalk that there was talk on the inside of them possibly shutting down," Dickson says. "I don't know if that was just the fearful talk to raise money for donations or what. I don't know how serious they were of thinking that these laws were going to shut them down or not, over in Shreveport, but ... it just put that whole reality that this could actually happen, that Louisiana could become an abortion-free state and if that were to happen, what is that going to mean for Texas?"

According to reporting from Blane Skiles, who works for CBS' Shreveport affiliate, supporters for Dickson's ordinance in Waskom, the first Texas town to pass its own abortion ban, circulated a newspaper article from 1991, when the former director of the Shreveport clinic said she'd consider moving the clinic to Texas. The clinic has no current plans to move.

In addition to the heartbeat bill, Louisiana also recently passed legislation requiring any doctor performing an abortion in the state to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic at which they perform an abortion. Texas passed an identical law in 2013, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas law three years ago.

The new, more conservative court has agreed to give the Louisiana law a new hearing after it was struck down by a lower court. Hope Medical Group for Women remains open, but more than half of Texas' abortion clinics closed after its admitting privilege law briefly went into effect.

"When these laws are passed, they don't operate in a vacuum," Lucy Stein, then the advocacy director for Progress Texas, told the Observer after the 2017 Texas legislative session. "You've had decades of abortion restrictions piling up in Texas, so the 2013 law, despite being struck down by the Supreme Court, closed half the state's abortion clinics. The clinics haven't all been able to reopen, so we're still operating with half the clinics that we had in 2014."

Despite the millions of dollars Texas has spent fighting for its anti-choice laws, Dickson believes the state is soft on abortion. He's pushing the ordinances so small, vulnerable towns don't end up as the targets for incursions by abortion providers into Texas.

The premise around which Dickson ordinances are built is that Roe v. Wade, as well as its successors, Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, were all decided incorrectly by the Supreme Court. Take a few hops, skips and jumps from there, and you get something like the document taken up by the Waskom City Council in June.

With a unanimous vote, Waskom declared that Roe, Casey and Whole Woman's Health were "unconstitutional usurpations of judicial power, which violate both the Tenth Amendment the Republican Form of Government Clause, and are declared to be null and void in the City of Waskom."

The ordinance, which declares abortion "murder with malice," puts off enforcement of the policy unless the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have teeth, Dickson says.

What he's counting on, along with leaders in Waskom, Omaha, Gilmer, Joaquin, Tenaha and Naples, is the ordinance functioning as a deterrent and insurance policy. Any doctor performing an abortion in one of the towns between now and when Roe comes down would accumulate fines, all of which would come due when abortion is no longer legal nationwide.

Pro-choice advocates believe the ordinances are also intended to intimidate women out of getting abortions and to sow confusion about the procedure's legality in Texas.

In response to Waskom's action, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas executive director Aimee Arrambide emphasized that abortion is still legal in Texas, no matter the steps taken by any city council.

"We will not be intimidated," Arrambide said in a statement in June. "At a time when the fundamental freedoms under (Roe v. Wade) are under attack, we recommit ourselves to expanding and protecting these rights for all Texans."

With groups like NARAL focusing on educating the public that their rights remain intact, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is focusing on making sure cities passing the ordinances know what they're getting themselves into. Since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, no state has passed a law banning abortion at earlier than 20 weeks after conception and seen it hold up in court.

"In the last year, the ACLU has filed lawsuits in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Ohio challenging unconstitutional abortion bans," the group wrote in a letter to Mineral Wells as the city considered its own ban. "This type of litigation can be immensely costly. Restrictions on abortion passed in 2013 — declared unconstitutional in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt — cost the state of Texas more than one million dollars."

The letter worked. Despite support from the mayor, Mineral Wells' City Council declined to pursue their own ordinance thanks to legal concerns.

“It’s our duty to protect the city from being involved in a lawsuit that would be very costly,” City Council member Brian Shoemaker said, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

After the Mineral Wells vote, the ACLU of Texas made it clear that it is ready to fight any city that decides to partner with Dickson.

"The proposal would have infringed on Texans’ access to safe, legal abortion care and would have served to further intimidate the individuals seeking that care," ACLU of Texas reproductive rights strategist Drucilla Tigner said in a statement. "We hope all cities will follow Mineral Wells’ example of upholding everyone’s fundamental right to abortion care and contraception, regardless of where they live."

While Dickson's push is supported by one of Texas' two biggest anti-abortion groups, Texas Right to Life, the other, Texas Alliance for Life, believes their cause would be better served by pushing for legislative action and making sure America's courts continue to be stacked with conservative judges.

"We are encouraging grassroots citizens to concentrate on reelecting pro-life members to the Texas Legislature who will pass a total ban on abortion, triggered by the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned," said Joe Pojman, Texas Alliance for Life executive director. "We also want grassroots to concentrate on reelecting President Donald Trump. Trump has a proven track record of nominating federal judges who will take an honest look at Roe v. Wade and reevaluating that awful decision."

Despite his claims to the contrary, Dickson does believe that some people's lives are worth less than others. He has no plans to push Walker County, home to Texas' death row, to abolish the death penalty. Those on death row, he argues, have given up their right to life.

"I'm OK with the idea of a rapist possibly getting the death penalty," Dickson says. "You punish the rapist, you don't punish the unborn child who's innocent, who's done nothing wrong. That would be like saying just because a father has committed the crime that we should punish the child and not the father. That's madness. This is apples and oranges here. What we're talking about is the guilty and the innocent."

Dickson's goal is patching together a quilt of abortion bans that covers the entire state.

"Even if it's put for a vote in cities and their councilmen and their mayor votes against it — that shows where they stand and that encourages the people in those great cities — if they have elected people that don't reflect their values — to rise up and support people who will run in those offices that will represent their beliefs and values," Dickson says.

While Dickson's views on the death penalty are in line with most Texans, his views on abortion are not. According to a June poll by Quinnipiac University, 54% of Texans believe abortion should remain legal in most cases in the state in the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned. Only 12% of Texans surveyed believed that abortion should be banned in all cases. 

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