A Texas pastor aims to outlaw abortion in towns bordering Utah

Mark Lee Dickson’s ‘Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn’ is putting forward an ordinance to ban abortion in nearby West Wendover, where a Planned Parenthood clinic proposal remains in limbo.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) People march around the State Capitol in Salt Lake City in support of abortion rights on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

As Utah inches toward an abortion clinic ban that will likely end access to elective abortion, a Texas-based anti-abortion organization is working to enact de facto abortion bans in localities just across the border — starting with West Wendover, Nevada.

Mark Lee Dickson, a Texas pastor and anti-abortion activist, has made a name for himself in the intensifying tug-of-war over abortion policy in recent years by taking the fight from capitol buildings to town halls. Since 2019, he has worked with municipalities and counties — mostly in Texas and neighboring states — to establish what he calls “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn,” which he also has used as the title of his organization.

Dickson, who is often road-tripping between communities that are entertaining “sanctuary city” proposals, told The Salt Lake Tribune he set his sights on West Wendover after receiving a Google alert that a Planned Parenthood organization was planning to build a clinic in the town on the Utah-Nevada border.

“When it comes to Nevada and Utah, West Wendover is my focus,” Dickson said. “And of course, what do we see in West Wendover? A city of 4,500 people, and Planned Parenthood is setting up shop there. Why is Planned Parenthood Mar Monte setting up shop there? I would assume it is because of its location. I would assume it is because they want that abortion traffic from Utah residents.”

Abortion is currently legal up to 18 weeks in Utah. But when a bill to ban abortion clinics takes effect, the closest abortion clinics to the Wasatch Front would be a five to six-hour drive away. Planned Parenthood Association of Utah has asked a district court to block the new law.

A clinic in West Wendover, which is just two hours from Salt Lake City, would drastically cut travel time and expenses for most Utahns seeking an abortion.

The organization proposing the clinic, Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, operates out of California, but its coverage area includes three-quarters of the counties in Nevada. And last year, approximately one-third of the abortion care provided at its clinics was for people traveling from out-of-state, according to CEO Stacy Cross.

Cross said Planned Parenthood Mar Monte has been working since last spring — around the time a U.S. Supreme Court draft to overturn Roe v. Wade was leaked — to bring a full primary care clinic to West Wendover.

At a March 7 city council meeting, council members voted 4-1 to reject its request for a permit. Dozens of West Wendover residents showed up to speak both for and against the proposal, and several Utah anti-abortion activists made the drive, too.

Mayor Jasie Holm vetoed the council’s vote to both shouts and applause, leaving the proposal in limbo. Planned Parenthood Mar Monte has not responded to questions about its next steps.

(City of West Wendover) West Wendover, Nev. Mayor Jasie Holm speaks at a city council meeting Tuesday, March 7, 2023, during debate to allow a Planned Parenthood clinic in the city.

Among the scores of residents who spoke, just one was given over 10 minutes to offer their thoughts on the proposed clinic — Blessed Hope Church Pastor Dennis Draves. He was the first person Dickson reached out to.

“He contacted me, he saw my name in — I don’t know where — some newspaper, or something, and he called me, and the rest is history,” Draves said. “He told me what he did, and it fit very well with what we were trying to do.”

Less than two weeks later, Dickson was at Blessed Hope Church to discuss putting forward an ordinance that would create a de facto abortion ban, The Wendover Times reported. The meeting included “several pastors and leaders from throughout the community,” he said.

Draves said that one city council member was at his church that evening, although he declined to say who, and Dickson said he took additional time to meet “with some community leaders who did not attend the meeting, but who were very interested in the ordinance.”

Nevada allows abortion up to 24 weeks, and doctors may provide one after that point if they decide it is medically necessary. The state allows non-residents to seek those services.

The state’s legislature is considering a bill that would enshrine reproductive freedom — including the choice to have an abortion — in its constitution. If passed, the proposed amendment would have to be approved by the lawmaking body one more time before going to a vote by Nevadans.

The West Wendover City Council’s decision to deny Planned Parenthood a permit is an example of why the state needs to think about protecting abortion rights in the Nevada constitution, said Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro during a committee hearing on the bill.

“It was rejected simply because (of) some council members’ personal feelings about abortion,” Cannizzaro said. “As a result, Nevadans will not have access to essential health care services.

“That is the result of the world that we now live in that is very different from what we have existed under for nearly 50 years. In light of these drastically changed legal circumstances at the national level, voters in Nevada deserve another opportunity to weigh in.”

It is unclear how that amendment could affect an ordinance like the one Texan is proposing.

But from his perspective, it wouldn’t, because the ordinance goes beyond Nevada’s laws to force compliance with a 19th-century federal law — the Comstock Act.

Officially named “An Act for the Suppression of Trade In, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” the 150-year-old law has been watered down over the years, but still outlaws Americans from mailing any “article or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion.”

Enforcement of that law would seemingly be at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last year that abortion policymaking be left to states. Dickson, however, said his attorney — former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell — would be willing to argue on West Wendover’s behalf pro bono that the unenforced federal law supersedes Nevada’s.

Speaking up as the ‘Silent Majority’

At the crowded city council meeting in early March, numerous West Wendover residents came to voice support for a Planned Parenthood in their community. They shared stories about being denied contraceptives by a local pharmacist and suffering through medical emergencies because reproductive health care was too difficult to access.

After the vote, many of them came together to form a fledgling group of more than 100 residents called the “Silent Majority.”

Among them is former city council member Kathy Durham, who spoke in March and wrote a letter to the council pleading with them to “vote to expand healthcare services in our community and uphold your oath of office to ensure ... the separation of Church and State.”

“They came to me and just basically said, ‘OK, what do we do?’” Durham, who also teaches at the local high school, said. “And I just said, ‘Well, you need to organize, need to find out what your priorities are and figure out what your talking points are. And be prepared to speak up.’”

While Durham said she doesn’t know where everyone in the Silent Majority will come down on the proposed ordinance, she said the group will “definitely” be meeting to talk about it.

As for Durham, she said, “I don’t know what Texas thinks they’re doing in Nevada. I imagine that Texas wouldn’t take kindly to this Nevada teacher coming in and telling them how to teach their Texas students.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of Abortion Free Utah and other groups listen to speakers at the Capitol as they celebrate the end of Roe v. Wade, on Saturday, July 2, 2022.

When such an ordinance to create a “sanctuary for the unborn” might come in front of the city council is unclear. Dickson and Draves thought it might have been debated in Tuesday’s meeting, but the ordinance did not make it on the agenda. The next meeting is on April 18, and agendas are typically published at the end of the prior week.

The Tribune reached West Wendover Mayor Jasie Holm, who vetoed the city council’s decision to deny Planned Parenthood Mar Monte a permit to open a clinic, over the phone to ask her thoughts on the ordinance. She requested that questions be sent over email, but did not respond.

Theoretically, Holm could also veto the ordinance to ban abortion if it comes up, Durham explained.

Dickson’s efforts to cut off the potential for Utahns to access abortion mirrors the work he has done around his home state, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, and in states that border others with abortion bans.

To date, 65 municipalities and two counties — the vast majority of which are in Texas — have passed abortion ban ordinances, according to his organization’s website.

Both counties and three of those cities sit in the southeast corner of New Mexico, where there are no restrictions on abortion. In mid-March, however, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, signed a law to prohibit such ordinances.

West Wendover isn’t Dickson’s last stop in the area. He said he has “talked to council members in several communities throughout Nevada and Utah.” And while any ordinance crafted for a Utah municipality would look different from the one being used in West Wendover, “they both have the same desired effect in creating a community free from abortion.”

Durham believes a Planned Parenthood would offer a plethora of benefits for West Wendover, but as the clinic proposal remains stalemated, she mourns that West Wendover might not be an oasis in an abortion care desert.

“(Utah) women, I feel for them because they’re going to go to bed at night with less rights than I have, simply because I live three miles across the border,” Durham said. “And they’re still going to need access to health care. Nobody grows up hoping that they’re the one who has to have an abortion.”