Over the last year of the pandemic, 23 tiny towns in Texas have approved local laws declaring themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn”, passing ordinances to make the procedure punishable by a $2,000 fine.
In April, the tiny village of Hayes Center, Nebraska, became the 24th, and the first outside Texas.
“Would we ever see an abortion clinic in Hayes Center? Maybe not,” said Kim Primavera, a Hayes Center trustee. Four of the village’s five trustees are women, and most are young. They represent about 280 people here. “But it’s always better to be proactive than reactive in life in general,” she said.
The Hayes Center Times-Republican, the local newspaper which Primavera partially owns, reported that not a single person in town spoke against the measure.
The towns and their leaders differ, but there is one constant: traveling preacher Mark Lee Dickson, a director of the tiny non-profit East Texas Right to Life.
“I don’t have an abortion story, I’m a 35-year-old virgin. But I’ve seen the impacts of suicide and the throwing away of life in general,” Dickson said. “That’s why I’m so passionate about the subject of abortion.”
Dickson has crisscrossed the south over the last year of the pandemic in a 2008 Ford F-150, hoping to spread the ordinances beyond Texas. In all cases, he is invited, and only shows up when there is significant support.
Anti-abortion ordinances that call the healthcare procedure “murder” and providers “criminal organizations” touch on “what the majority of people here believe”, Dickson said. “They took seriously the statement [Joe] Biden said about how he wants abortion access in every zip code.”
Dickson’s ordinances straddle a rift in the anti-abortion movement, between the litigation-focused mainstream and the grassroots extremists, and comes as the American right seeks to define itself post-Trump amid a rising tide of domestic terrorism.
On one side are people like Primavera, a former crisis pregnancy center director and mother of six who argues women are victims of doctors who perform abortions. In recent years this mainstream vein of the anti-abortion movement has sought to recast itself as the true home of American feminism and it views women as victims of abortion.
On the other side is a growing grassroots movement dominated by men who argue abortion should be prosecuted under homicide statues, and both women and doctors should be charged with murder. Dickson’s ordinances have borrowed ideas and received plaudits from these groups.
These militant “abolitionists” have seen increasing success pushing bills to criminalize abortion and share an affinity for anti-government ideology with rightwing militias, researchers argue.
“There’s absolutely no daylight between the substantive priorities of these groups,” said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University College of Law and the recent author of Abortion in America: A Legal History, Roe v Wade to the Present. “Where the disagreement lies is pretty much about how to get … the criminalization of abortion the most quickly and the most effectively.”
Dickson’s ordinance was first passed in Waskom, Texas, a town of 1,600 residents, where the town attorney describes meetings as mostly “a formality”, and where the city secretary signs all emails “have a blessed day”.
Waskom lies directly west of Shreveport, Louisiana, where one of only three remaining abortion clinics in Louisiana is located. As Louisiana lawmakers put increasing pressure on the clinic to shut down, Dickson said he wanted to forestall any clinics from coming to Texas, even though no such proposal had been made since 1991. Nevertheless, he called the aldermen of Waskom.
“When I reached out to them it was all about protecting Waskom,” Dickson said. “I didn’t have any other city in mind.”
The town’s six aldermen found the ordinance appealing, and approved a measure to punish doctors and anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion with a $2,000 fine. Women who chose abortion were exempt from punishment.
Nationally, the ordinance was met with ridicule. The picture of six gray-haired east Texas men voting to ban abortion went viral. Dickson and Waskom were at the center of a media maelstrom, and he coached the town through the moment.
When CNN, the New York Times and the Associated Press called about the ordinance, Dickson wrote potential quotes for Mayor Jesse Moore, emailed them to the city secretary and asked if Moore found any appealing. It’s unclear if Moore ultimately used the quotes.
“Innocent human life must always be protected and preserved,” wrote Dickson in one email to the city secretary. “This would be a great quote as well. Let me know if he [the mayor] is good with these,” he wrote.
Widespread attention propelled the ordinances forward as conservative media began to cover Dickson’s successes. It also gained him the monied backing of the religious Thomas More Society law firm.
The firm represented Waskom and six other cities when they were sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for libel after calling abortion providers “criminal organizations” in their ordinances. Texas’s former solicitor general, Jonathan F Mitchell, known for his work against unions, also offered his services to towns sued by the ACLU.
“We do have a village attorney,” said Primaveria, “but in this case” Mitchell agreed to represent the towns, she said.
But even with the clout of lawyers behind the ordinances, some towns still found the legislation too divisive. The leaders of Carthage, Texas, where a 14ft statue of Jesus Christ stands on eastern outskirts of town, voted the ordinance down. It was simply bad policy, leaders argued.
“I am not going to be having an abortion. That is left up to the individual themselves if they want to have it,” Ida Beck, Carthage commissioner, said in a meeting where the ordinance was voted down, according to local newspaper the Panola Watchman. “They’re the ones who have to stand before God and face that.”
That Dickson is still busy passing such ordinances, traveling Texas, Nebraska and Missouri, is evidence of how the Trump administration empowered grassroots and often extreme campaigners, experts said.
The division within the anti-abortion movement resembles another period in American history: the early 1990s, when violence against abortion providers and clinics peaked. Then as now, hopes were high that a conservative supreme court could make abortion illegal. The “abolition” movement also shares some of the same leaders from that period.
“There’s a lot of optimism,” in the anti-abortion movement right now, said Ziegler. “If the supreme court doesn’t do what people want, there will absolutely be more of a threat of violence.” Already, the US has seen increasing incidences of domestic terrorism, including against abortion clinics.
Moreover, empowerment of domestic extremists during the Trump administration, and Trump’s statement that “there has to be some form of punishment”, has emboldened a male-dominated, militant wing of anti-abortion extremism that last peaked in the early 1990s.
“Abolitionists”, who compare themselves to 19th-century anti-slavery campaigners, have urged state and local governments to ban abortion within city limits, criminalize abortion providers, block reproductive rights groups from operating within certain jurisdictions, to punish women who have abortions and to designate towns “sanctuary cities” for the unborn.
“There’s murder going on, and the other branches of government need to stand up to the plate and stop it,” said Matthew Trewhella to the camera in a March YouTube video. Trewhella is one of the authors of a key text of the “abolition” movement, the Doctrine of Lesser Magistrates.
Trewhella’s group, Defy Tyrants, proclaims on their Facebook page: “The supreme court does not make the law.”
Dickson has won plaudits from Defy Tyrants, though most in the “abolition” movement want to go farther. Such groups have had success introducing bills in Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas to charge women who have abortions with murder.
The abortion abolition movement also has ties to pro-gun rights movements. In one image, a group of five “Defy Tyrants” supporters pose with AR-15-style rifles and a sign that says: “The state is not God.” In another instance, a Montana Republican party official and local pastor teamed up to create the first “sanctuary city” for both the “unborn” and gun rights.
Norman, Oklahoma, just outside Oklahoma City, has become a hotbed of “abolitionist” organizing in recent years.
“It’s just been more intense in Oklahoma City,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and CEO of Trust Women, which operates abortion clinics there and in Kansas. Burkhart is a former assistant of Dr George Tiller, who was assassinated in 2009.
In one instance in early 2021, an armed man who regularly went to restaurants, parks and other public places to protest against gun control showed up outside the gates of the abortion clinic. He was armed with an AR-15-style rifle, a pistol and knives.
“I don’t know what’s going on in his head,” said Burkhart. “Whether he’s going to remain there peacefully or start firing at people, it was chilling, and the staff were terrified.”
Dickson, who was at the 6 January insurrection at the Capitol, said he strictly opposes violence.
“I’m not telling you anything I haven’t told the FBI or anything else, but I was over by the Capitol building,” said Dickson. “All the destructive acts that happened there – 100% in disagreement with.”
However, he also does not oppose their efforts. “I don’t see them as enemies, I see them as on the same side … However, we have differing views on how things should be implemented.”
The biggest challenge for Dickson is just around the corner. The voters of Lubbock, Texas, will decide whether their town of 253,000 should be described as a “sanctuary city” for the unborn on 1 May.
The vote would not undo the right to obtain an abortion in Lubbock. Federal law supersedes local. But a success would sow confusion, heap pressure on a Planned Parenthood clinic, and further galvanize a movement bent on delegitimizing the courts.