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How Texas’ powerful but fractured abortion opposition helped bring down Roe v. Wade

Mark Lee Dickson stands on stage at New Hope Church in Abilene with a mic in hand. A sign behind him reads "his presence is our highest priority."
Shelby Tauber
Texas Tribune
Mark Lee Dickson, an early advocate for Texas’ new abortion law’s unique enforcement mechanism, speaks at New Hope Church in Abilene in December. The anti-abortion movement is likely to be unbound from the limitations of Roe v. Wade soon, and Dickson’s more aggressive arm of the movement — once dismissed as a radical outlier — seems primed to take the fight to previously unimaginable places.

Nearly 50 years ago, a high school freshman in Alief was in her sex education class when another student asked the teacher about abortion.

It was the first time Kyleen Peloquen, then 14, had heard the word.

With the teacher disinclined to provide details, she ran home to ask for an explanation. Her dad, a member of the school board, mumbled his way through a nonanswer.

When she finally learned what abortion was, she made up her mind to stop it.

Decades later, the teenager, now Kyleen Wright, remains one of the state’s most vocal opponents to abortion rights, heading up Texans for Life — one group in a powerful but fractured movement that has spent the last five decades fighting to overturn the constitutional protection for abortion that is laid out in Roe v. Wade.

Meanwhile, a new generation of more radical torchbearers has emerged from the marriage of convenience between the religious right and the conservative politicians who rose to power with their help.

Now, they’re on the precipice of achieving a dream nearly 50 years in the making: A leaked draft Supreme Court opinion indicates a majority of justices may be willing to overturn Roe v. Wade and throw abortion enforcement back to the states.

These Texas organizations have played an outsized role in bringing the national anti-abortion movement to this critical juncture — and as the old guard and new leaders debate their next moves, the future of the fight hangs in the balance.

The early days of a movement

Wright got involved with the anti-abortion movement at an important moment, just a few years after Roe v. Wade outlawed Texas’ total ban on the procedure in 1973.

Before that, abortion had been illegal in Texas for more than 100 years, and the fragmented, unfocused anti-abortion movement was just finding its direction.

So when Wright began her anti-abortion activism during high school, doing postcard-writing campaigns and similar grassroots actions, there wasn’t much of a playbook.

“We had to create everything from whole cloth,” Wright said.

Joseph Graham, a Catholic philosophy professor in Houston, and others launched Texas Right to Life around that same time. The group spawned several local chapters that have since become preeminent anti-abortion organizations in their own right.

One such chapter was formed in the 1980s by Joe Pojman, who first started an anti-abortion student group when he was in grad school at the University of Texas at Austin in 1986. Friends had told him about negative abortion experiences, including one who had gotten a secret abortion as a teen in Houston.

“I sensed great regret,” Pojman said. “I felt like it was time to get involved in the issue.”

By 2001, the group had morphed into the independent Texas Alliance for Life, and Pojman had gotten a doctorate in aerospace engineering — but chose to forgo a career as a rocket scientist in favor of running the group full time.

At the time these groups started to form, Democrats controlled the Texas Legislature and statewide offices, and the opposition to abortion was mostly relegated to the churches, the activists and the evangelical grassroots.

With little hope of effecting significant legislative action on abortion, the movement focused mostly on what Texas Right to Life legislative director John Seago called “prayerful presence” at abortion clinics and supporting the newly developing network of crisis pregnancy centers.

But the political winds were shifting in Texas, thanks in part to the growing influence of these groups.

The new power couple

In 1994, a candidate for Texas Republican Party chair took the stage at the party’s convention in Fort Worth.

“There are those people in this audience that want the Republican Party to be a church,” Dolly Madison McKenna told the crowd at the convention center. “But the Republican Party is not a church.”

McKenna was booed and catcalled, according to a New York Times article from the time, and finished a distant third.

That was no accident. In the two decades since Roe v. Wade was decided, the Republican Party, led by Texas strategists like Karl Rove, had harnessed anti-abortion passion to turn apolitical congregants into reliable GOP voters.

As they slowly gained power in the statehouse, Republican lawmakers returned the favor to their newfound base. They established rights for any baby that survived an abortion or was born prematurely, required abortion facilities to be regulated and banned abortions with limited exceptions in the third trimester.

By the late 1990s, the Christian right and the Texas Republicans were a political power couple — influencing, as a team, everything from redistricting to public education, and injecting social issues like abortion and gay marriage into the heart and soul of Texas politics.

“There was a synergism between the growth of the Republican Party and the growth of the pro-life movement,” Pojman said. “As the pro-life movement grew, it helped the Republican Party grow. As the Republican Party gained, it helped the pro-life movement.”

Pojman remembers the modern anti-abortion movement’s first big win in the Texas Legislature: the 1999 passage of a bill requiring doctors to notify a teenager’s parents before she got an abortion.

The Democratic Party that had batted away the abortion opposition for so long fell two elections later, with control of the Legislature and all the statewide offices shifting to Republicans for the first time in 130 years.

Since 1999, more than 50 laws supported by anti-abortion groups have been passed in the Texas Legislature, including budget provisions that banned state funds to abortion providers while funneling some $200 million to the secretive “Alternatives to Abortion” program.

Alternatives to Abortion channels money to a far-flung network of nonprofits — many of them ardently anti-abortion — to pay for counseling, classes and baby items for pregnant women and mothers of young children.

A majority — 78% — of Texans believe abortion should be allowed in some form, according to a recent University of Texas poll. Nationally, attitudes toward abortion have remained fairly steady since the 1970s, with less than a fifth of all Americans believing the procedure should be banned outright.

But abortion opponents in Texas haven’t let that stand in their way. While Roe v. Wade stopped them from enacting an outright ban on abortion, the Legislature managed to restrict access in other ways — and provided other states with a blueprint for similar efforts.

“We’re often the ones blazing a new trail,” Seago said.

As the movement gathered speed, leading anti-abortion organizations started to splinter on how they should handle their success. Some groups advocated for a more aggressive approach to future goals, while others warned against legislation that could spark expensive and perhaps precedent-setting lawsuits.

In 2013, after securing a Republican supermajority in the statehouse, Texas passed an omnibus abortion bill that required clinics to meet hospital-like standards, mandated that abortion providers have admitting privileges at hospitals and banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Former Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis famously filibustered for 13 hours to block the bill, which eventually passed anyway. As some groups had feared, abortion providers succeeded in getting much of that law blocked in a landmark decision before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the 20-week ban remained in place, despite being in opposition to Roe v. Wade, which prohibits bans on abortion before fetal viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.

“So to us, that ended up being a huge pro-life victory,” Seago said.

Their opponents who advocated for abortion rights found it impossible to fight back the ever-quickening breakdown of Roe v. Wade in Texas in spite of their occasional legal wins.

The Democratic Party was in a free-fall in Texas, and the anti-abortion movement had a much easier message to rally the emotional grassroots.

“Our talking points of defending something and pointing people in the way of righteousness and goodness and good health are really hard to communicate,” said Kae McLaughlin, who often went toe-to-toe with Pojman and Wright as head of the Texas Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. “Especially when they can just scare the shit out of people with, ‘Abortion is murder,’” and ignore the consequences of forced birth.”

New generation, new strategy

Anti-abortion activist Mark Lee Dickson was born 13 years after Roe v. Wade was decided, into a family that was already active in trying to reverse the ruling.

Dickson’s grandfather headed Right to Life of East Texas. As a child, Dickson would go visit the group’s booth at the county fair.

“On the table, they had these fetal models … at different stages of pregnancy,” he said. “I remember holding the 12-week fetal model and saw the eyes and the mouth and the nose and the ears and thinking, ‘It’s a baby.’”

He got more actively involved in the movement after his grandfather died in 2006. The more he learned about what he calls the “little massacres” happening at abortion clinics every day, the more he started to advocate for more urgent action.

Dickson was originally viewed by many of his peers as a fringe character, particularly when he first started advancing his big idea — getting cities to pass local ordinances outlawing abortion.

When Waskom — on the state’s border with Louisiana, with population 1,887 — became the first so-called “sanctuary city for the unborn” in June 2019, it didn’t make significant waves. But these local ordinances, which are now on the books in 49 cities in Texas and other states, would radically change the trajectory of the entire anti-abortion movement.

Working with state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, Dickson crafted these ordinances to be enforced through private civil lawsuits — not state action.

This clever sidestep of Roe v. Wade became the framework for Texas’s Senate Bill 8, which banned abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. The law divided the abortion opposition — groups like Texas Right to Life jumped on board, even creating a website where people could report possible violations of the law. But other groups, including Pojman’s Alliance for Life, didn’t endorse the law, citing concerns about legal challenges.

“I understand that not everyone was on board with this to start, but we were just at a point where we were saying that we’ve got to think outside the box,” Dickson said.

Abortion providers challenged the law before the U.S. Supreme Court — which allowed the law to stand.

“The Texas case showed the Supreme Court that … one way or another, abortion was going to end in Texas,” Dickson said. “We’re getting this done, and we did all this with Roe on the books.”

The anti-abortion movement is likely to be unbound from the limitations of Roe v. Wade soon, and this more aggressive arm of the movement — once dismissed as a radical outlier — seems primed to take the fight to previously unimaginable places.

The next frontier

If the Supreme Court does overturn Roe v. Wade, Texas will automatically ban abortion with exceptions only to save the life of the mother.

This culminates a lifetime of work for those who have been on the battle lines over abortion for decades — and opens a whole new world of potential advocacy.

“I’m not putting that bumper sticker on my car any time soon, the one that says ‘I’m going sailing,’ because there will be a tremendous amount to do,” Pojman said.

Where lawmakers decide to focus will depend on which part of the movement they listen to.

There are some areas of agreement among the anti-abortion groups: They want to tighten enforcement of existing abortion laws and increase regulation of nonimplanted, frozen embryos in IVF treatment, among other goals.

But some of the disagreements within the movement are vast.

For Pojman and Wright, prosecuting mothers for illegal abortions represents a bright red line.

“Totally off the table. We just don’t believe in that,” Pojman said of his group, which also opposes restricting access to birth control. “There was no reported case of a woman prosecuted for abortion in Texas or any other state before 1973 (when Roe came out). So that’s not something we want to pursue at all, and we discourage attempts to do that.”

But “five to 10 years” from now, Dickson said, after all the abortion clinics are shut down and all the loopholes closed, he could see Texas considering legislation that criminalizes the person who got the abortion.

“If a human being is a human being from the point of conception, then we’ve got to have equal justice accordingly,” he said, drawing a comparison between “the mother who drowns her 2-month-old in a bathtub and the mother who intentionally ends the life of her child in the womb.”

He also wants to ban access to emergency contraception, known as Plan B. Plan B can be purchased over-the-counter; in 2013, the Food and Drug Administration dropped age requirements.

“I don’t think it should be on the market, period,” he said. “Even if our nation were to dial things back and say, hey, you have to be 18 to purchase this, I still think it’s a horrible, horrible idea.”

For Wright’s group, Texans For Life, where members are of different faiths, there’s no consensus among her supporters on this issue.

“We can’t say that because she takes the morning-after pill, she’s killed a fertilized egg because we don’t know that,” Wright said. “It can take a week for an egg to be fertilized. There’s too much we don’t know. We try to stay on the things that have broad support from our members.”

These will be the questions legislators will have to navigate when they return to the Capitol in January, at which point Roe v. Wade may be a thing of the past. Then, it will be up to those legislators, as well as the advocates who have their ears and the voters they ultimately answer to, to decide how far this movement is willing to go

Disclosure: New York Times and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

From the Texas Tribune

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