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How the Texas Anti-Abortion Movement Helped Enact a Near-Complete Ban

Texans are almost evenly divided on abortion, but a combination of Republican control, conservative judicial appointments and cultural shifts helped the state’s anti-abortion movement find success.

RICHARDSON, Texas — A steady stream of women trickled into Prestonwood Pregnancy Center late last week, alone and with partners, with appointments and without. One couple held hands and whispered cheerfully; a young woman scrolled through her phone until her name was called. A wall-mounted screen in a corner cycled through a carousel of inspirational messages. “You are strong.” “Hope is stronger than fear.” “There are options.”

Abortion clinics emptied out last week after a Texas law enacting a near-complete ban on abortion went into effect. But Prestonwood is not one of those clinics. It is instead among the state’s more than 200 “crisis pregnancy centers,” facilities aligned with anti-abortion organizations that offer free medical tests and counseling in hopes of dissuading women from terminating their pregnancies.

These centers are sometimes located within eyesight of abortion clinics, and there are nearly 10 times as many of them, a sign of the extraordinary success of the state’s anti-abortion movement that led to the passage of the country’s most restrictive law.

How Texas arrived at this moment was the culmination of years of Republican control, conservative judicial appointments and rising passion around abortion issues by many Christians in the state. Polls show Texans almost evenly divided on abortion access and the state’s cities have grown more Democratic, but it was the conservative abortion opponents who established a powerful political, cultural and even physical presence across the state’s vast terrain.

In the race among conservative states to undo the constitutional right to an abortion — as established in 1973 by the landmark case, Roe v. Wade — Texas “feels an obligation to lead and be bold,” said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group.

Indeed, because Roe v. Wade began in Texas, after an unmarried woman challenged the state’s criminal abortion laws, the modern anti-abortion movement in the state has felt compelled to push for its disintegration.

Nick Wagner/Austin American-Statesman, via Associated Press

“We started this moral tragedy, it’s ours to end,” said Chelsey Youman, the Texas State Director and National Legislative Advisor for Human Coalition Action, an anti-abortion group based in Frisco, Texas, near Dallas.

The modern anti-abortion movement in Texas, however, did not begin with Roe v. Wade.

“It did not immediately set off a reaction in Texas,” said Daniel K. Williams, a professor of history at the University of West Georgia. “For several decades, the issue really didn’t have much staying power.”

At the time, the anti-abortion cause was primarily one pressed by Catholics, and it was strongest in Northern states with large Catholic populations.

Evangelicals, dominant in the South, were largely moderate on the issue, generally opposing “on-demand” abortion but open to a variety of exceptions. A 1969 poll by the Baptist Standard found that 90 percent of Texas Baptists thought the state’s abortion laws were too restrictive. W.A. Criswell, a prominent Southern Baptist pastor in Dallas and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, remarked in reaction to Roe v. Wade, “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had a life separate from its mother that it became an individual person.” (By the end of the 1970s, though, Mr. Criswell opposed abortion rights.)

Over the decades, Texans continued to elect senators who favored abortion rights into the early 21st century. But by then, the anti-abortion movement had become a powerful force in evangelical culture.

And the state, once solidly in Democratic hands, shifted to Republican control in the mid-1990s. Since 2003, Republicans have held majorities in both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s office. It is also covered by a conservative federal appeals court, the Fifth Circuit in Louisiana.

Like many other states across the South and Midwest, Texas has steadily chipped away at legal and practical access to abortion for decades, including requiring pregnant women to undergo a sonogram — by the same doctor who will perform the abortion — at least 24 hours before the procedure. Other measures, such as the Alternatives to Abortion program, have helped fund pregnancy centers like Prestonwood, which was founded three decades ago as a ministry of Prestonwood Baptist Church, a nearby evangelical megachurch.

In contrast, there are about 24 abortion clinics in Texas, down from 40 less than a decade ago, an imbalance to the scores of pregnancy centers like Prestonwood that speaks to the cultural and political success of the anti-abortion movement, even as the state’s largest and bluest cities get larger and more progressive. The number of abortion clinics is sure to drop further, abortion rights advocates said, as many will be forced to close if the new law remains in place.

In an emergency application asking the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, a coalition of abortion providers warned that the law — which bans abortions at the point when cardiac activity is detected, generally about six weeks, when many women don’t yet know they are pregnant — “would immediately and catastrophically reduce abortion access in Texas.” Clinics raced to see clients until the minute the law went into effect last week.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court declined to immediately block the law. The law uses an innovative approach designed to make it more difficult to challenge in court, barring state officials from enforcing it and instead deputizing private individuals to sue anyone who performs the procedure or “aids and abets” it. They are entitled to $10,000 and their legal fees covered if they win.

Montinique Monroe for The New York Times

Legal parries to blunt its impact continued after its implementation. On Friday evening, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against Texas Right to Life, Mr. Seago’s group, blocking it from suing Planned Parenthood until Sept. 17. And the law, which bans abortions after six weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest, is still being challenged in the lower federal courts.

Texans, like the country at large, remain deeply divided on abortion. In a poll taken in February by the University of Texas and The Texas Tribune, 32 percent of Texans said they wanted to see more restrictive anti-abortion laws in the state, while 37 percent wanted less strict laws.

But across the state, in its biggest cities and in rural pockets, it has been the anti-abortion movement that has gained the most momentum over the years. Many churches sponsor related ministries, and a recent calendar of events published by an anti-abortion website includes rallies, retreats for men who suffer from the “repressed grief, anger and guilt” of terminating a pregnancy, annual walks and runs and hikes. Billboards denouncing abortion, with graphic images, have dotted the highways. (Over the last year, abortion rights billboards have also popped up.)

About a decade ago, Texas Right to Life shifted its legal strategy to focus on laws banning abortion, rather than regulations that chipped away at access. It also decided to pursue legislation founded on the idea that the state had an interest in protecting fetal life. Previous anti-abortion legislation had often rested on the argument that stopping abortion would protect the life and health of pregnant women.

Abortion opponents had proposed ‘heartbeat bills’ in Texas, including in 2013 and 2019. But by 2021, the Supreme Court makeup was more favorable to the anti-abortion cause, and dynamics in the state legislature had shifted.

Bryan Hughes, the co-author of this year’s new law, Senate Bill 8, used his new position as chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs to pass several pieces of anti-abortion legislation early in the session. And the House got a new speaker, Dade Phelan, who was willing to bring the bill forward for a vote, after the previous speaker assigned the 2019 version to languish in a committee chaired by a Democrat.

Should the law survive the remaining legal challenges, the effective elimination of many more of the state’s abortion clinics may raise demand for some services at nonprofit crisis pregnancy centers, like Prestonwood, which often offer baby supplies, parenting classes and other resources in addition to pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.

But critics of the centers say they can be deceptive, pointing out that they do not provide birth control or medical services that a pregnant woman needs to carry a baby to term and then thrive afterward. “They congratulate themselves on having a diaper bank and car seats,” said Jeffrey Hons, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood South Texas, which has temporarily suspended abortion services in response to the new law. “People need health care.”

Protesters and anti-abortion “sidewalk counselors” are a constant presence outside Planned Parenthood South Texas. And a crisis pregnancy center is next door, sporting a similar blue and cream color scheme to Planned Parenthood in its signage. “If you and your services could stand on their own, why do you have such a deceptive face to the public?” Mr. Hons asked. “I call that lying.”

Nitashia Johnson for The New York Times

Similarly, one of the two Prestonwood Pregnancy Centers in the Dallas area is across the street from a Planned Parenthood facility. But Leanne Jamieson, Prestonwood’s executive director, said pregnancy centers like hers are needed in Texas, particularly now as residents grapple with the implications of the new law.

Over the last week, phones were “ringing off the hook,” she said. And in a signal of the optimism — and opportunity — the anti-abortion movement sees in this moment, Ms. Jamieson said she was considering expanding the center’s prenatal medical care.

“It might be we pivot in these times and look at: What are the needs of our community and what is it we are called to fill?” she said. “All the centers across the state are having that conversation.”

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