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Texas Highways Are the Next Anti-abortion Target. One Town is Resisting.

LLANO, Texas — No one could remember the last time so many people packed into City Hall.

As the meeting began on a late August evening, residents spilled out into the hallway, the brim of one cowboy hat kissing the next, each person jostling for a look at the five city council members who would decide whether to make Llano the third city in Texas to outlaw what some antiabortion activists call “abortion trafficking.”

For well over an hour, the people of Llano — a town of about 3,400 deep in Texas Hill Country — approached the podium to speak out against abortion. While the procedure was now illegal across Texas, people were still driving women on Llano roads to reach abortion clinics in other states, the residents had been told. They said their city had a responsibility to “fight the murders.”

The cheers after each speech grew louder as the crowd readied for the vote. Then one woman on the council spoke up.

“I feel like there’s a lot more to discuss about this,” said Laura Almond, a staunch conservative who owns a consignment shop in the middle of town. “I have a ton of questions.”

More than a year after Roe v. Wade was overturned, many conservatives have grown frustrated by the number of people able to circumvent antiabortion laws — with some advocates grasping for even stricter measures they hope will fully eradicate abortion nationwide.

That frustration is driving a new strategy in heavily conservative cities and counties across Texas. Designed by the architects of the state’s “heartbeat” ban that took effect months before Roe fell, ordinances like the one proposed in Llano — where some 80 percent of voters in the county backed President Donald Trump in 2020 — make it illegal to transport anyone to get an abortion on roads within the city or county limits. The laws allow any private citizen to sue a person or organization they suspect of violating the ordinance.

Antiabortion advocates behind the measure are targeting regions along interstates and in areas with airports, with the goal of blocking off the main arteries out of Texas and keeping pregnant women hemmed within the confines of their antiabortion state. These provisions have already passed in two counties and two cities, creating legal risk for those traveling on major highways including Interstate 20 and Route 84, which head toward New Mexico, where abortion remains legal and new clinics have opened to accommodate Texas women. Several more jurisdictions are expected to vote on the measure in the coming weeks.

“This really is building a wall to stop abortion trafficking,” said Mark Lee Dickson, the antiabortion activist behind the effort.

Conservative lawmakers started exploring ways to block interstate abortion travel long before Roe was overturned. A Missouri legislator introduced a law in early 2022 that would have allowed any private citizen to sue anyone who helped a Missouri resident secure an abortion, regardless of where the abortion occurred — an approach later discussed at length by several national antiabortion groups. In April, Idaho became the first state to impose criminal penalties on anyone who helps a minor leave the state for an abortion without parental consent.

Mark Lee Dickson speaks during a Proposition A watch party in Trinity Church on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Lubbock Texas.
Mark Lee Dickson speaks at Lubbock’s Trinity Church on May 1, 2021. Credit: Justin Rex for The Texas Tribune

But even in the most conservative corners of Texas, efforts to crack down on abortion travel are meeting some resistance — with some local officials, even those deeply supportive of Texas’s strict abortion laws, expressing concern that the “trafficking” efforts go too far and could harm their communities.

The pushback reflects a new point of tension in the post-Roe debate among antiabortion advocates over how aggressively to restrict the procedure, with some Republicans in other states fearing a backlash from voters who support abortion rights. In small-town Texas, the concerns are more practical than political.

Two weeks before the Llano vote, lawmakers in Chandler, Tex., held off passing the ordinance, citing concerns about legal ramifications for the town and how the measure might conflict with existing Texas laws.

“I believe we’re making a mistake if we do this,” said Chandler council member Janeice Lunsford, minutes before she and her colleagues agreed to push the vote to another time. She later told The Washington Post that she felt the state’s abortion ban already did enough to stop abortions in Texas.

Then came the Llano City Council meeting on Aug. 21. Speaking to the crowd, Almond was careful to emphasize her antiabortion beliefs.

“I hate abortion,” she said. “I’m a Jesus lover like all of you in here.”

Still, she said, she couldn’t help thinking about the time in college when she picked up a friend from an abortion clinic — and how someone might have tried to punish her under this law.

“It’s overreaching,” she said. “We’re talking about people here.”

About a month earlier, Dickson had arrived in Llano with an urgent warning.

A “baby murdering cartel” was coming for the pregnant women of Central Texas, he recalled telling a group of about 25 Llano citizens in the town library, wearing his signature black blazer and backward baseball cap.

“By trains, planes and automobiles, I say we end abortion trafficking in the state of Texas,” he said.

Dickson brought along a laminated map of his state, black and red Sharpie marking each of the 51 jurisdictions across Texas that had passed ordinances to become what he calls a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”

Buttery Creek flows under the Ford Street Bridge on Monday, Dec. 14, 2021 in Llano, TX. The Commissioners Court for Llano County voted to close the public library to "inventory and catalog" their books after community pushback related to books that some deemed offensive. The pushback also led to a decision to immediately shut down an online library of thousands of books out of fears that children could access material not appropriate for children. Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune
Buttery Creek flows under the Ford Street Bridge on Dec. 14, 2021 in Llano. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

He hoped Llano would be next.

A director of Right to Life of East Texas, Dickson joined forces with former Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell in 2019, when abortion was still legal in Texas until 22 weeks of pregnancy. Together, the men set out to ban abortion city by city, focusing on conservative strongholds. The Texas ordinances relied on the novel enforcement mechanism that empowers private citizens to sue, creating the model for the statewide “heartbeat ban” that took effect exactly two years ago, on Sept. 1, 2021.

Since Roe fell, triggering a new ban that outlawed almost all abortions in Texas, Dickson and Mitchell have changed their strategy. Along with passing ordinances in conservative border towns in Democrat-led states, where abortion providers may look to open new clinics, the team has zeroed in on those helping women leave Texas for abortions — a practice they call “abortion trafficking.”

By Dickson’s definition, “abortion trafficking” is the act of helping any pregnant woman cross state lines to end her pregnancy, lending her a ride, funding, or another form of support. While the term “trafficking” typically refers to people who are forced, tricked or coerced, Dickson’s definition applies to all people seeking abortions — because, he argues, “the unborn child is always taken against their will.”

The law — which has the public backing of 20 Texas state legislators — is designed to go after abortion funds, organizations that give financial assistance to people seeking abortions, as well as individuals. For example, Dickson said, a husband who doesn’t want his wife to get an abortion could threaten to sue the friend who offers to drive her. Under the ordinance, the woman seeking the abortion would be exempt from any punishment.

Abortion rights advocates say the ordinance effort is merely a ploy to scare people out of seeking the procedure. To date, no one has been sued under the existing “abortion trafficking” laws.

“The purpose of these laws is not to meaningfully enforce them,” said Neesha Davé, executive director of the Lilith Fund, an abortion fund based in Texas. “It’s the fear that’s the point. It’s the confusion that’s the point.”

While these restrictions appear to violate the U.S. Constitution — which protects a person’s right to travel — they are extremely difficult to challenge in court, said Mary Ziegler, a law professor at the University of California at Davis who focuses on abortion. Because the laws can be enforced by any private citizen, abortion rights groups have no clear government official to sue in a case seeking to block the law.

“Mitchell and Dickson are not necessarily conceding that what they’re doing is unconstitutional, but they’re making it very hard for anyone to do anything about it,” Ziegler said.

Mitchell declined to comment for this story.

Asked about the constitutionality of his ordinances, Dickson cites the Mann Act, a federal law from 1910 that makes it illegal to transport “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” If the Mann Act is constitutional, he says, so is this.

Llano was a particularly attractive target, Dickson said, because the town sits at the crossroads of several highways. Travelers driving west toward New Mexico from Austin, for example, would likely take Highway 29 or 71 — both of which pass through Llano.

Mark Lee Dickson bows his head as Pastor Scott Beard prays during a worship service at the FountainGate Fellowship church in Abilene on Sunday.
Mark Lee Dickson bows his head as Pastor Scott Beard prays during a worship service at the FountainGate Fellowship church on December 12, 2021, in Abilene. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

When Dickson first came to town to drum up interest for his ordinance, Councilwoman Almond was well aware of his endeavors. She’d seen his flier, advertising “the effort to protect Llano residents from abortion across state lines.” Then a friend reached out to ask if Almond and her husband would sit down with Dickson for a meeting.

“I’ve got a lot going on in my life,” Almond said she told her friend. “And right now, that’s just not where my energy is.”

Almond says she was thankful when Roe was overturned. A 57-year-old former elementary school teacher, she voted twice for Trump, and says she plans to vote for him again. Her friends call her a “pistol-packing mama.” Every time she gets a text message, her phone spits out the sound of two gunshots.

But Almond — who wears flower earrings and glittery orange nail polish — is also known as a bit of a city council wild card. At her consignment store, “Possibilities,” she employs an eclectic staff whose beliefs span the political spectrum. Her store manager is one of the only married, openly gay men in town — and if anyone has a problem with him, Almond says, they’d better hope she doesn’t hear about it.

Almond had Llano’s community of “cowboys and hippies” in mind when she chose her store’s slogan: “Where you meet awesome people and the possibilities are endless.”

Llano — just beyond the radius of Hill Country most trodden by Austin weekenders — is known as a deer and dove hunting destination, peppered with taxidermy studios and wild game processors. Every April, residents come together to cook roughly 25,000 pounds of crawfish for a festival that draws people from all across Texas.

The town recently made national news as ground zero for another cultural flash point when its library removed several books from its shelves, including some that focused on sex, race and LGBTQ+ issues.

“People get along pretty well here until we have dividing issues like the library — and now this,” Almond said.

The Llano County Courthouse in Llano on Apr. 25, 2022.
The Llano County Courthouse in Llano on Apr. 25, 2022. Credit: Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune

Since she heard about the proposed ordinance, Almond said, she’d been wondering whether Llano really needed to further restrict abortion. She worried the term “abortion trafficking” was confusing, creating the impression that many women were being forced to get abortions across state lines against their will.

“It sounds like more of a slave situation,” she said.

It was not clear if some of the proposed ordinance’s most ardent proponents in Llano understood what it would do, with several mischaracterizing the measure during interviews with The Post.

While the language of the draft ordinance explicitly states that it would apply to people transporting “any individual for the purpose of providing or obtaining an elective abortion,” the mayor, Marion Bishop, said the term “abortion trafficking” did not apply to women who were choosing to get abortions “on their own free volition.”

“It would be people who were either coerced or undecided, who found themselves loaded onto a van and headed somewhere,” Bishop said in an interview at the vodka distillery he owns downtown.

Pressed on the contradiction between his statement and the language of the proposal, Bishop acknowledged that what he originally said “may not be totally accurate.”

Still, he said, he continues to support the ordinance, which he views as largely symbolic.

“Is it absolutely necessary? No,” Bishop said. “Does it make a statement? Yes it does.”

The morning of the council meeting, Almond decided to cancel her plans so she could fully consider the implications of the ordinance that would outlaw “abortion trafficking” in her town.

She still wasn’t totally sure how she would vote.

With seven hours to go before the meeting, she pulled out a printed copy of the 16-page proposal. Then she sat down at her kitchen table, pen in hand, and began to read.

The whispers in the back of city hall grew louder as the crowd realized that Almond would not be voting as they had expected.

“Laura can’t do this by herself,” said an advocate for the ordinance, leaning over to the other people in her row. “She needs someone to second. There’s still a chance.”

Then the other woman on the council, Kara Gilliland, chimed in with her own hesitations.

“I’m not for abortions and that’s my personal belief,” Gilliland said. “But I cannot sit up here knowing that there are 3,400 other citizens in this town who don’t have the same belief necessarily as I do.”

Four of the five members of the Llano City Council voted to table the ordinance for another time.

“You can be mad at me if you want to,” Almond said to her town. “But I’ve got to sleep with myself at night.”

Combing through the ordinance that morning, Almond said in an interview, she scribbled furious notes in the margins, trying to identify every potential issue. She feared the law’s civil enforcement mechanism would turn members of the Llano community against each other. While she’d supported the implementation of the Texas “heartbeat ban,” which relied on the same provision, she said she hadn’t given much thought to how that could pit neighbor against neighbor.

Now it was her job to “peel the layers” — and she didn’t like where the law could lead.

Cars drive through downtown Llano on Monday, Dec. 14, 2021 in Llano, TX. The Commissioners Court for Llano County voted to close the public library to "inventory and catalog" their books after community pushback related to books that some deemed offensive. The pushback also led to a decision to immediately shut down an online library of thousands of books out of fears that children could access material not appropriate for children. Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune
Cars drive through downtown Llano on Dec. 14, 2021 in Llano. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

As the city council moved on to other matters, Dickson ushered the angry crowd out to the porch.

The ordinance was tabled, he reminded his audience — not dead. The city would have another opportunity to consider the proposal as soon as early September.

“Is this the city council of Austin or is this the city council of conservative Llano?” Dickson said. “This is far from over. … Show up at their businesses with some signs.”

“I know where Laura works,” offered the wife of a local pastor.

Dickson recalled what happened in Odessa, a far larger city in West Texas that failed to advance an earlier version of a “sanctuary city” ordinance several years earlier. With help from antiabortion residents, he said to the group, some of the council members who opposed the measure were ultimately voted out of office.

“Now Odessa has a 6-1 majority that is in favor of this,” Dickson said.

Odessa passed the ordinance in December.

The next night, Dickson drove 40 minutes to Mason, Tex. to try to convince another small, conservative community to pass the same law.

More than 20 people gathered around plates of pizza and pasta at a restaurant that doubles as a gun store. In the window, next to a sign for “fresh oysters,” someone had painted the message, “Let’s go, Brandon,” an insult aimed at President Biden. On one wall of the restaurant is a confederate flag taller than Dickson; above the bar, a flag for “Trump 2020.”

Dickson chose this location for his next meeting, inviting local pastors and other antiabortion advocates in the area to hear a version of the same speech he delivered a month earlier in Llano.

“Guys, I don’t care if there’s only one person on your city council who wants to pass this,” Dickson said. “If you have a personal relationship with a council member, reach out.”

Mason residents smiled and nodded, digging through their purses for pens to write down Dickson’s email.

Less than 24 hours later, the “abortion trafficking” ordinance was added to the official agenda for the Mason board of county commissioners.

They would take up the matter at their next meeting.

Source : TheTexasTribune