BIG SPRING, TEXAS — Mark Lee Dickson squeezed a plastic toy fetus in his right hand as he drove down the highway. Small and soft, it resembled a fetus in its 12th week of development, about the size of a fat baby carrot. Two more of them sat in Dickson’s center console. The 34-year-old pastor carried them around as props.
“My thought was when I first saw one was, it’s a baby!” Dickson said. “That’s how most people react. No one has ever taught them this is what a child looks like at this stage.”
Dickson, who wore a backwards baseball cap over his shaggy hair, referred to the toys as anatomically correct. (An OB-GYN I consulted said they were oversimplified.) It was late January, and Dickson was on his way to Big Spring in west Texas, population 28,000, where the city council was about to vote on an ordinance to ban abortion.
The ordinance was Dickson’s idea. After Alabama effectively banned abortion last year — the unconstitutional law has not gone into effect — and other states raced to restrict abortion at earlier and earlier stages of pregnancy, he had the terrible feeling that Texas was lagging behind. He also worried that as neighboring states made it harder for abortion clinics to operate, providers would cross the border into Texas. So he came up with a plan. If cities could ban plastic straws, he asked, why not abortion?
Since last summer, he has crisscrossed Texas in his truck, encouraging municipalities to declare themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn” and pass ordinances outlawing abortion. His first success story was Waskom, a city of under 2,000 residents in east Texas, which banned abortion last June. At publication time, 12 towns had passed abortion bans lobbied by Dickson. (One town, Omaha, later walked it back under advice from city attorneys.) Four other towns had voted his ordinance down. Dickson has a list of 400 Texas towns to go.
The ordinances, as they stand, are unconstitutional. Abortion is legal in Texas and no state or local laws can change that. Dickson’s “attempts to analogize this situation to actions that are not protected by the Constitution, like banning plastic straws, are a direct attempt to mislead the public about the nature of the Constitution and the rights it protects,” said Drucilla Tigner, reproductive rights political strategist at ACLU of Texas.
Dickson is not shy about his desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. If he happened to spur a legal challenge that prompted the Supreme Court to reconsider abortion rights, he said, he’d thank whomever sued.
Confusion Is The Point
Dickson and his supporters say the ordinances are mainly preventative, designed to stop abortion clinics from setting up in towns that do not currently offer abortion services, but critics say there’s a more sinister plan afoot.
“The point is to create a sense of confusion,” said Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher Institute. Peddle enough false claims, and people seeking an abortion won’t know how and if they can obtain one, even while the procedure remains safe and legal. Misinformation is the “bread and butter” of anti-abortion groups, she said. “They are trying to stigmatize abortion, shame patients and vilify providers.”
The ordinances lobbied by Dickson go even further to besiege every aspect of abortion. They define abortion as premeditated murder and declare that organizations that provide abortions are criminal. They also make it unlawful to help anyone get an abortion within the city limits or provide any information about self-managed abortion. Family members of someone who has received an abortion would gain the right to sue the provider for “emotional distress.”
Big Spring does not have an abortion clinic for which abortions need to be prevented. But for local residents (and other towns that have passed such bans), the ordinances have sown fear and confusion.
In the lead-up to the vote, women in Big Spring told me they didn’t know if they were allowed to seek an abortion anywhere else were the measure to pass, or if they could be punished for abortions obtained in the past. Some worried about offering reproductive advice to others, or lending money to friends seeking abortion care out of town. Others questioned whether they could still buy emergency contraception, or even speak openly about abortion at all.
Standing Up For Rights
Big Spring, a small oil patch town in west Texas, sits in the middle of an abortion desert. There are more than 60 churches here, but the closest abortion services provider is in Fort Worth, around 250 miles away.
It wasn’t always this way. In early 2012, abortions were available at Planned Parenthood clinics in Abilene, Midland, San Angelo and Lubbock, all less than a two-hour drive. Then state budget cuts forced the Abilene clinic to close. The other three clinics ceased operations after Texas passed a sweeping anti-abortion law in 2013 requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and clinics to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.
West Texas was hit particularly hard. According to a recent study, of the five cities in the U.S. where people must travel the farthest to reach an abortion clinic, four are in west Texas. Long distances to reach a clinic, paired with onerous restrictions and prohibitive costs, have left women attempting abortions on their own. In Texas, women try to end their pregnancies themselves three times more often than women anywhere else.
On the morning of the ordinance vote, I met with Stephanie Vela Anderson, 39, a third-generation Mexican American who was born in Big Spring and lived there until 2009. The night before, she drove six hours back to her hometown, through a lightning storm, so that she could protest Dickson’s actions. It was personal to her.
In 1997, when Anderson was 17, she became unexpectedly pregnant. At the state-run health clinic in town, a nurse told her that she could get an abortion about an hour away if she wanted, but her mother wouldn’t allow it. In their Catholic family, termination was not an option. Anderson’s church was somewhat accepting of her pregnancy out of wedlock, she said. They threw her a baby shower, and gave her diapers and onesies. But still, she was overcome by feelings of guilt. She no longer believed God loved her, she said. “It was common knowledge that if you’re having sex, you’re a slut,” she said. “It was a very lonely place to be a pregnant teenager.”
Anderson now lives in Austin with her partner. She has three children and works in customer service for an internet company. She is also a visual artist. Despite her conflicted feelings about her hometown, she returns often to visit friends, and it was on a recent trip when she read in the Big Spring Herald that an out-of-town pastor was attempting to ban abortion there.
She was flooded with anger, imagining a pregnant teen girl like herself, living at home with religious parents, scared and lonely and trying to work out what to do. There was already so much stigma around abortion in Big Spring, she said. Dickson’s ordinance would only make things worse. Anderson went on Facebook to vent. Soon, she connected with another woman in east Texas doing the same thing after her town passed one of Dickson’s bans. (That woman, a college student, asked to remain anonymous due to fears of judgment by her conservative family.)
Together, they now manage a private Facebook group where they organize against the bans, bringing together hundreds of women from across the state. Online, some Big Spring women were furious about the proposed ordinance, and worried about its implications. But they were scared to speak in public. Most of them were members of local churches. They were small business owners, or worked for the town. Some expressed anxiety about having their hours cut, or losing their jobs entirely. Others didn’t want to be ostracized in their social circles. “It’s surreal ... there’s a lot of fear,” one woman told me. “This is a small west Texas town. Everyone knows everything about everyone.” In the Facebook group, one member who worked in Human Resources offered advice on what to do if a person’s job was threatened due to their political views.
When I met with Anderson, at a motel in town, she was getting ready to stage a protest outside city hall. For weeks, she had been urging Big Spring women to attend. It was important that the town see visible resistance, she said. Some of them agreed to participate. But the closer the time of the protest came, the more Anderson’s phone chirped with bad news. Woman after woman dropped out. For a brief moment, it appeared that Anderson would be leading the protest alone. The evaporating support surfaced old feelings from her childhood, she said. Once again, she was isolated and vulnerable.
“I feel like women are always going to lose in west Texas,” she said. Still, she gathered her protest signs and got in her car.
One Person Makes A Difference
Dickson is from White Oak, a small town in east Texas, an hour from the Louisiana border. In 2012, he joined the “front lines of the abortion battle,” he said, when he began preaching outside Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, Louisiana, located about 20 miles from Texas. That clinic is now at the center of a major abortion case headed to the Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday.
At issue is a restrictive Louisiana law that requires abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. (It was modeled on and is virtually identical to the Texas law that was struck down by the court in 2016.)
If the law prevails, it is estimated that only one clinic will remain open in the state. Dickson, who supports the Louisiana law, worried that it would have the unintended effect of causing an influx of abortion clinics into Texas.
So one day last summer, he decided to go on the road, becoming something of a traveling salesman for municipal abortion bans. In the months since, he has driven to dozens of Texas towns, pitching his ban to anyone who is receptive.
On the day of the Big Spring vote, I rode with Dickson to city hall. His truck was littered with candy, newspapers, fetal models and a warning ticket for speeding. As we approached the meeting, I asked what had led him to this particular calling. Dickson responded by describing his love for the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which the main character, George Bailey, gets to see what the world would have looked like had he not been born. Dickson was struck by the idea of how much one person can influence another. “The absence of one person leaves a void in so many other lives,” he said, a tear rolling down his cheek.
As he saw it, life was precious and shouldn’t be thrown away. Since he was young, he said, he had retained a childlike sense of wonder about his own existence. “I have these moments where I stare at my hand and pinch myself and I’m blown away,” he said. “I’m here! This is not a dream!”
I asked him if he had ever had a personal experience with abortion ― if a girlfriend had experienced an unintended pregnancy and had to make a difficult decision about starting or expanding a family. He had not. “I’m a virgin,” he said. He would like a family one day, he added, and sometimes feels lonely. He has struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts in the past. “I would love to have companionship,” he said. “But this is where God has me right now.”
A Town Divided
Anderson arrived at city hall with her stomach in knots. But she was not alone. Around a dozen people showed up to protest, and they stood close together, holding their signs up for the cars that passed. A few beeped.
Anderson had focused her poster ― CITY PENSION B4 CHURCH ORDINANCE ― on the possible financial ramifications of the ordinance. It could open Big Spring up to costly litigation, she worried, and the town could not afford it. (Her fear would prove prescient: In the time I was reporting this story, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against seven towns that passed similar ordinances. Dickson has said he has a legal team that will defend the towns and cover any costs incurred, though he declined to offer details on who was footing the bill.)
A half-hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, Anderson got in line. The city chambers fit only 86 people and while normally meetings were sparsely attended, the past two times that the abortion ban was discussed the room had filled to capacity and latecomers were forced to wait outside. Dickson arrived too, and joined the end of the line.
Once inside, people soon divided themselves between those who supported the ordinance and those who did not. Nearly everyone was white. (Almost half the town is Hispanic, according to census data.) Mayor Shannon Thomason, a Libertarian, called the meeting to order with his cell phone propped up by a bible. Anderson sat in one of the first rows, her face furrowed; Dickson picked a chair on the far wall and removed his hat.
Mayor Thomason addressed the attendees and invited them to share their opinions about the ordinance. He explained that they had to give their name and address before they spoke, a requirement of the city administrative code. In the front of the room, a woman trained her video camera on the podium; a local news station was streaming the meeting online.
Many of the women who protested outside before the meeting did not speak. They later told me they were afraid of publicly declaring their position on abortion to the crowd.
Those who did testify against the ordinance shied away from sharing their personal views on abortion. Instead, they argued that the city had no place in dictating a women’s health care choices. Others, choosing to sidestep the contentious issue altogether, worried that the hastily written ordinance — Roe was misspelled as “Row” in the version offered online — would backfire on the town, opening it up to litigation.
Supporters of the ordinance urged council members to vote yes, often employing incendiary language. “If you aren’t pro-life then just call it what it is ... you are in support of the murder of innocent lives,” said a woman named Wendy who taught junior high school. “It is not pro-life, it is pro-death!” She picked up her child in a bassinet and immediately left. Others compared abortion to the Holocaust.
Most everyone spoke about God. “Maybe abortion is a sin, but maybe it is the only option a woman has not to ruin her life,” said John Ferguson, a 91-year-old lawyer and Sunday school teacher. “This is a matter between a woman and her God.”
Back and forth, the town went.
When it was Dickson’s turn to speak, the young pastor kept his remarks short, reminding the council members that they were elected to represent the people in their districts, not their own personal views. “Hate evil and love good; establish justice in the city gate,” he said, quoting a bible passage. “Perhaps the lord, the God of Hosts, will be gracious on the city of Big Spring.”
Then Anderson was up. She shook a little, and turned to address the council. “I don’t know how to connect with people right now on the other side,” she said. She went on, looking around the room. She had heard a lot about protecting life, but none of the supporters of the ordinance seemed to care much about mothers and children in Big Spring. Where was this urgency when it came to addressing the real problems in town, like poverty or homelessness or the fact that there was no domestic violence shelter there? What about rampant child abuse, or the crumbling schools, or the line for the food bank that wrapped around a street corner?
“Mark doesn’t live here,” she said, turning her attention to Dickson. “He doesn’t know what this town needs.”
An hour later, the ordinance passed, four to two. The crowd clapped loudly, and one man exclaimed, “Hallelujah.” Anderson left quickly. Outside, she lit a cigarette and huddled with a small group of women, who were dumbstruck by the outcome.
One resident who attended the meeting but did not testify told me that she had recently purchased Plan B for her teenage daughter after a sexual assault. She was worried about being prosecuted for “aiding and abetting” an abortion. While she knew emergency contraception does not terminate a pregnancy, she was concerned that the ordinance could be incorrectly interpreted by overzealous lawmakers.
Another woman described how after her daughter got pregnant last year, she took her to a health clinic in town to get a sonogram. Her daughter wanted to know how far along she was. But after medical staff learned that she planned to have an abortion in El Paso, they refused to administer the sonogram. Both women asked to remain anonymous for fears of publicly aligning themselves in support of abortion rights.
A few minutes later, Dickson came outside to find someone. There was a flurry of activity as the women suddenly approached him.
“You have no idea what you’ve done to my town, and you don’t care,” Anderson said, confronting him. “If you care, you’d move here and take care of children.”
Dickson turned and went back inside, refusing to engage.
Anderson got in her car. She had a long drive back to Austin as she had work in the morning. She was angry at Dickson, she said. Before he came to town, no one talked about abortion. People minded their own business. She felt like he had used the citizens of Big Spring to push his own radical agenda.
She updated her Facebook group on the news, and then immediately began mulling over her next steps. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “We have more to do.”
When I later spoke with Dickson, he said he was pleased with the results, but added his intention had not been to rub it in the women’s faces when he came outside. I asked if he had empathy for those who disagreed with his position; if he could imagine what it would feel like to have to carry and give birth to a child you didn’t want.
“It’s not so much that I want to tell women what they can and can’t do with their bodies,” he said. “I want to tell women what they can’t do with another human body.” Mothers sacrificed for their children, they didn’t sacrifice them, he added.
After the vote, he celebrated with chicken fried steak and fried pickles at a hotel restaurant. In the morning, he’d go to another town and begin the process again.
CORRECTION: The mayor of Big Spring was previously identified as a Republican. He is a Libertarian.