Travelling Preacher Looking To Ban Abortion In 400 Cities Across Texas
When the Supreme Court announced it would hear a case on the constitutional right to abortion this year, it fired the starting gun on what may well become a generation-defining battle for women’s reproductive rights.
But what happens when anti-abortion activists don’t want to wait for permission to roll back abortion rights?
That’s exactly what happened two months ago in Lubbock, Texas, when voters passed ordinance banning abortion in all cases except for when medically necessary, in blatant defiance of state and federal law.
Lubbock is just the latest example of an anti-abortion effort sweeping across Texas. Over the past two years, 30 small towns in the state have declared themselves ‘Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn’, with their local councils passing similar versions of legislation effectively outlawing abortion.
The first Sanctuary City was established in Waskom – population 1,600 – in 2019. Other towns followed suit, and the movement has since spread to at least two other states.
Most Sanctuary Cities fit the same profile: tiny; rural; conservative; Christian; and overwhelmingly white. But Lubbock is different. For starters, the city is by far the largest to have declared itself a Sanctuary City. It’s got a population of 253,000, and is a college town home to one of Texas’s largest universities.
Secondly, unlike other Sanctuary Cities, Lubbock’s council initially rejected the proposed legislation on the grounds that it was unlikely to hold up in court, with even anti-abortion advocates saying the attempt was doomed to fail. The city’s influential churches stepped in, running an effective campaign that saw the ordinance passed through a public vote in May by a margin of 62% to 38%.
More importantly, though, Lubbock is the only Sanctuary City for the Unborn that actually has an abortion clinic. A Planned Parenthood branch had opened in the city last year after an earlier clinic was forced to close in 2013, in what was celebrated at the time as a huge victory for Texas pro-choice campaigners following a statewide gutting of reproductive health services over the past decade.
The Planned Parenthood branch is still providing other women’s health services, but closed its abortion clinic after the legislation went in to effect last month, leaving residents of Lubbock and the sprawling rural districts surrounding the city in need of abortion services with the option of a 600-mile round trip to the next-nearest clinic, or a journey across state lines to New Mexico.
‘I’m most afraid of the harm that it causes individual people who are sitting there pregnant and don’t want to be, and don’t know what to do,’ says Kamyon Connor, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, a mutual aid nonprofit that helps fund abortions for those who can’t afford them.
‘I know that it can’t be easy for people, and I don’t think they’re agonising over whether or not they want to terminate their pregnancy, I think they’re agonising over the fallout, over who can take me, who is gonna support me, is my family going to be mad, am I going to get arrested?’
The legislation passed in Lubbock doesn’t punish people who get abortions, and the total abortion ban can’t be enforced by government while Roe v. Wade remains in place. Instead, it allows the relatives of a person who has had an abortion to privately sue anyone who they believe to have helped provide access to abortion services, whether that be a doctor who recommends a clinic, or a friend who helps pay for the appointment.
At best, the laws create what Connor describes as a culture of ‘stigma and shame’ around accessing abortion services. At worst, they represent an attempt to ‘criminalise’ those receiving a legitimate and legal healthcare procedure.
The measures passed by Lubbock may seem extreme, but they might not be that far off what abortion laws in states across the US could soon look like if anti-abortion legislators get their way. The Texas state legislature itself recently passed a similar bill allowing ordinary citizens to sue people who helped facilitate an abortion, as well as new restrictions banning abortion in all non-medical emergency cases after six weeks.
‘Anti-abortion politicians continue to deny our freedoms and create obstacles when it comes to decisions about our health, our bodies, our families,’ says Connor of the threat posed by the anti-abortion movement. ‘If they succeed with their ultimate agenda legal abortion will be completely shut off.’
Several other states have similarly strict laws on the books in the full expectation that the Supreme Court will partially or fully overturn Roe v. Wade in the coming years, and ‘Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn’ is part of this anti-abortion shift towards asking for permission later.
The movement was established in 2019 by Mark Lee Dickson, a Texas-based traveling preacher who leads a small but increasingly influential anti-abortion nonprofit called Right to Life of East Texas.
Dickson, who describes himself as a ’35-year-old virgin’, has said that he was inspired to begin the ‘Sanctuary Cities’ movement over fears that Texas was lagging behind neighbouring states when it came to taking action to restrict abortion.
He has a list of 400 cities in Texas that he hopes to bring into the movement, and told CNN earlier this year ‘for so long, we have put our hope in our state capitols, in our nation’s Capitol, when all along we need to be battling these battles on the home front of our cities’.
His approach has proved controversial even among anti-abortion campaigners, many of whom believe the legislation being passed to be unconstitutional. Following the vote in Lubbock, Dr Joe Pojman, director of Texas Alliance for Life, told the city’s Avalanche-Journal newspaper that while he applauded Dickson’s motives, the Sanctuary City movement was not a ‘silver bullet’, and could end up setting the anti-abortion movement back through the time and cost spent on the inevitable legal battles.
But with the legislation in Lubbock having already forced the closure of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, unlike in other Sanctuary Cities, until the ordinance is officially struck down, women in the area are being denied access to health care they want and need.
‘My concern is that fewer people will get care,’ says Connor. ‘The ability to co-ordinate travel and get lodging is really hard, especially for young folks who are the most likely [to need help].’
Over the past decade, Texas has become one of the hardest places in the country to access abortion services. Since 2013, more than half the state’s abortion clinics have closed, while a 2018 study found that four out of the five US cities the furthest distance away from an abortion clinic were located in Texas.
‘The hurdles that people in Texas have to jump through to access abortion care, which is a routine part of pregnancy care, [are] just outrageous and ridiculous,’ says Connor.
Abortions in Texas are also not covered under public or private health insurance, meaning women are forced to pay to terminate their pregnancies out of pocket. With the average cost of an abortion starting at $500, that’s a major issue for many women, which is where mutual fund groups like TEA Fund step in.
In 2020, TEA Fund committed $400,218 in funding for abortions, giving 1,218 people an average of $331 each to help pay for their abortions. The vast majority of their clients – 70% –are Black, Indigenous, or other people of colour, and half are already parents.
And as the state places more restrictions on abortion services in place, the need for their work is only becoming more vital. ‘The need for abortion access has steadily increased while we have seen the ability to access care decrease steadily,’ Connor says.
‘We usually get over 6,000 calls a year to our helpline…and we can fund about 1,000 people every year. So there are a lot of folks that we end up saying no to and we don’t know if they are forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.’
TEA Fund is currently working alongside two other Texas-based abortion funds to lobby for Rosie’s Law – named after Rosie Jimenez, who died following an illegal abortion in Texas in 1977 – that would overturn the state’s current ban on private and public insurance coverage of abortion.
The laws being passed in Texas makes TEA Fund’s work more challenging, and with the Supreme Court case looming on the horizon, an even greater threat could soon arrive, but Connor says activists are determined to make sure women in the state can continue to access abortion services.
‘TEA Fund will continue funding abortions even if it means we’re helping people leave the state,’ she says. ‘I see folks in the [reproductive rights] movement getting bolder during this time, because what else do we have to lose?’
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