Mark Lee Dickson has made it his life’s work to criminalize abortion in the state of Texas. A pastor and the head of Right to Life of East Texas — as well as a self-identified “36-year-old virgin” — Dickson traveled to 400 Texas cities in 2019, encouraging towns to declare themselves “sanctuary cities for the unborn” and pass ordinances outlawing abortion. He was successful, aiding the passage of nearly 50 ordinances banning abortion in cities in Texas and a handful of other states.
His achievements on the road jump-started his career as one of the most well-known anti-abortion advocates in the country.
Dickson’s legislative strategy for banning abortions at the city level paved the way for Texas’ vigilante-enforced six-week abortion ban that went into effect last year. The anti-abortion advocate, along with attorney and former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan Mitchell, formulated an enforcement mechanism that would circumvent any legal or court challenges: delegating enforcement to private citizens, rather than law enforcement or other government agencies. That played out in cities across Texas, until Dickson and Mitchell took their idea statewide. With the help of Texas Republicans, Dickson helped craft Senate Bill 8 ― the most extreme abortion restriction at the time ― which financially incentivized private citizens to sue anyone who aids or abets Texans trying to get an abortion past the six-week point.
Unlike other recent attempts to ban abortion early in pregnancy, S.B. 8 was able to survive legal challenges when Roe v. Wade was still the law of the land. The measure, arguably one of the first major warning signs that Roe would soon fall, was a huge victory for abortion opponents like Dickson.
Fast-forward a full year, and Roe is dead. Over a dozen states including Texas have enacted near-total abortion bans, forcing many Americans to travel to other states to receive care.
Dickson, triumphant in Texas, has now turned his sights to New Mexico ― a state where many Texans have fled to access critical abortion care.
Two New Mexico towns near the Texas border are discussing abortion bans within their city limits that will come to a vote in the coming weeks, and a handful of other communities in the area, including the city of Lovington and Lea County, are discussing similar measures. The city council in Clovis, a farming town in eastern New Mexico, will vote Nov. 3 on an ordinance that seeks to ban abortion providers and criminalize sending medication abortion, or abortion pills, by mail. And the city commission in Hobbs, a town about 2 1/2 hours south of Clovis, voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to proceed with an ordinance to ban abortion. A final vote in Hobbs is set for Nov. 7.
Dickson has been a central figure behind both of these proposals.
He’s been in communication with Clovis residents for more than a year to make the town a “sanctuary city for the unborn,” Dickson told Eastern New Mexico News earlier this month.
“All I did was answer a call. All I did was go where the Lord was calling me to go,” said Dickson. “I did not go forward thinking I could do this on my own. I went forward saying, ‘God help me. God help this city. I can’t do this alone. We can’t do this alone. We are going to need your help.’”
Dickson spoke at an anti-abortion rally in Hobbs earlier this month, alongside other abortion opponents from Texas and New Mexico. He can also be seen cheering in the background of a Hobbs City Commission meeting after an all-male board voted unanimously to proceed with an ordinance banning abortion.
Neither Clovis or Hobbs have abortion clinics within their city limits, but some reproductive health organizations have expressed interest in expanding abortion services to cities that border Texas to accommodate for the influx of patients traveling to New Mexico. Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, recently said she’d like to offer services in or around Clovis, Hobbs and Roswell, another New Mexico town near the Texas border.
Dickson is trying to preempt any such move. “We know that abortion providers want to set up right here in these cities that are just minutes away from the Texas border,” Dickson told Reuters after a recent Hobbs City Commission meeting. “They want to attract as many Texas residents as possible for abortions right here in New Mexico.”
Both the Clovis and Hobbs ordinances are likely to face legal challenges if passed, but similar measures in Texas, also spearheaded by Dickson, have survived past lawsuits. There are currently eight abortion clinics in New Mexico. The closest for Clovis and Hobbs residents are located in Albuquerque, which is a four- to five-hour drive away.
Many Texans and Oklahomans have fled to New Mexico in order to access abortion care in the last year. Since 2021, when Texas’ vigilante abortion ban went into effect, New Mexico has taken on a flood of Texas patients, with one clinic reporting that it was booked four weeks out and 75% of its patients were from Texas. In the wake of Roe’s reversal, the Southwestern state has become home to several clinics that were forced to shut down and relocate including Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi clinic at the center of the Supreme Court case that ended nationwide abortion protections.
New Mexico is also one of five states that offer crucial abortion care later in pregnancy because there is no legal limit on abortion in the state.
There’s a chance, though a slim one, that the upcoming elections could change that. Joe Biden won New Mexico with a nearly 11% margin of victory over Donald Trump in the 2020 election, and Democrats hold the governor’s seat and a majority in both chambers of the state legislature. It’s a largely pro-choice state, although some pockets ― including rural areas like the ones Dickson is targeting ― lean more conservative.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) currently leads her GOP rival, abortion opponent Mark Ronchetti, by about 7.5 points in the polls. Dickson has endorsed Ronchetti several times, most recently posting a photo of himself with the candidate on Facebook and writing Ronchetti would “be a serious upgrade” from Lujan Grisham.
During his primary, Ronchetti ran on a “strongly pro-life” platform in which he said he would oppose abortion “at all stages” and that “unborn babies have souls, can feel emotions, and are every bit a human being.” But after Roe fell this summer, Ronchetti started walking back his strong anti-abortion views ― seemingly taking a page out of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) playbook.
Now, Ronchetti is painting himself as a moderate, saying he would “seek a middle ground on abortion” and calling for a 15-week ban. Just last month Ronchetti ran a campaign ad again downplaying his anti-abortion stance and proposing a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment on abortion to “give people a voice.”
But Dickson is still supporting Ronchetti. During the Clovis City Commission meeting earlier this month, Dickson claimed he and Ronchetti recently discussed the abortion ban ordinances.
“I was talking to Mark Ronchetti, and I was telling him a while back about what was happening here tonight. And I said, you know, this is what you’re talking about … among the people, the communities deciding this issue,” Dickson said while speaking to the city commission board.
“I said, when Clovis does this, don’t waste the opportunity,” he continued. “Stand with the people of Clovis, stand with the people of Hobbs, stand with the people of New Mexico that are pro-life and want to see this state, these counties, these cities, move forward with the heart of what New Mexicans truly believe.”
Lujan Grisham’s campaign told HuffPost in a statement that voters should know what Dickson and the potential new governor talked about.
“Ronchetti owes New Mexicans full transparency about what he said to the Texas abortion ban activist who is trying to import his extremist policies to New Mexico,” said Delaney Corcoran, a spokesperson for the governor’s reelection campaign.
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