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Small rural communities become battlegrounds for access to abortion

WEST WENDOVER, Nevada — In April, Mark Lee Dickson arrived in this town of 4,500 people along the Utah-Nevada border to launch an ordinance banning abortion.

Dickson is the director of the anti-abortion group Right to Life of East Texas and the founder of another organization that has spent the past few years traveling across the United States trying to convince local governments to ban abortion.

“Sixty-five cities and two counties across the United States” have passed similar restrictions, he told West Wendover City Council members at a meeting in mid-April. The majority are in Texas, but recent successes in other states have bolstered Dickson and his band.

“We do it in Virginia, Illinois, Montana, and other places as well,” he said.

The quest to enact local bans has become particularly acute in small towns, such as West Wendover and Hobbs, NM, which sit on the border between states that have restricted abortion and states where laws preserve access. They are at a crossroads where abortion advocates and providers have sought to establish clinics to serve people traveling from the vast swaths of the United States where states have banned or severely restricted abortions after the Court U.S. Supreme Court overturned national abortion protections established nearly 50 years ago by the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

Residents and leaders of West Wendover and many other towns are grappling with the arrival of outside advocates, including Dickson, who are now demanding a stake in the governance of their otherwise quiet, small communities.

Dickson’s proposal to the West Wendover City Council came after council members voted against issuing a building permit to California-based Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in March. Planned Parenthood branch officials told the local council that the facility would provide primary care services in addition to abortion and other reproductive care. The vote followed hours of heated debate in public comments. Then Mayor Jasie Holm vetoed the council’s decision, leaving the permit application in limbo.

Located in northeastern Nevada, West Wendover is more than 100 miles by car from Elko, the county seat, 120 miles west of Salt Lake City and 170 miles south of Twin Falls, Idaho . The city has been a strategic location for casinos and a marijuana dispensary, which are legal in Nevada but restricted in Utah and Idaho. Likewise, its proximity to states that moved to restrict access to abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning Roe has shone a spotlight on the city.

A statue of a cowboy named "Will Wendover" welcomes guests to West Wendover, Nevada
“Wendover Will” welcomes visitors to West Wendover, Nevada, a community located in the far east of the state along the border with Utah. Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez / KFF Health

Dickson’s anti-abortion proposal drew support from the city’s more conservative residents. But brothers Fernando and Marcos Cerros have taken issue with anti-abortion efforts. In addition to wanting to protect and expand access to abortion, they both saw the primary care clinic that Planned Parenthood Mar Monte sought to establish as a potential win in their rural community, which is designated as a medically ill area. served by Federal Health Resources and Management Services.

Fernando Cerros, 22, said Planned Parenthood offered a solution to the region’s healthcare shortage “on a silver platter”.

“And it was refused. I have to do what I can to bring him here,” he said.

The Cerros brothers tried to organize a group to support abortion access and establish the Planned Parenthood Clinic in West Wendover, but struggled to sustain it. They said they felt outnumbered by residents who support Dickson. Marcos Cerros, 18, said he attended Catholic Mass every Sunday in West Wendover and parishioners there were regularly exposed to inflammatory anti-abortion language.

Abortion up to 24 weeks is protected by Nevada law, and the state legislature recently approved a bill to enshrine the law in the state constitution. To become law, the measure will need to pass once again in Nevada’s next legislative session in 2025 and be approved by voters in 2026.

Brothers Marcos and Fernando Cerros have taken issue with anti-abortion efforts.
Brothers Marcos and Fernando Cerros have taken issue with anti-abortion efforts.Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/KFF Health News

Last year, following the then Governor Dobbs decision. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, issued an executive order similar to those in other states protecting patients who seek abortion care from prosecution by states where it is not legal.

Across the eastern Nevada border in Utah, abortion is legal for up to 18 weeks, while challenges to a trigger ban and a decision to clamp down on permission to practicing in abortion clinics are continuing in court.

Idaho’s abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the country. Currently, the state allows abortion only in certain cases of rape and incest or to save the life of the mother. In April, the state made headlines after lawmakers passed an “abortion trafficking” law that criminalizes helping minors cross state lines to get abortions or obtaining abortion pills without parental consent.

Extreme variations in abortion policy from state to state are the new norm, and local challenges are “what we face,” said Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Beasley School of Law at the University. ‘Temple University and co-author of a recent research paper. examine the post-Dobbs legal reality. “Theaters of conflict are on the rise, and that’s the complex legal landscape we live in.”

Dickson’s strategy for creating what he calls “sanctuary cities for the unborn” involves invoking a 150-year-old federal law that limits the shipment of abortion pills. But Dickson argues the law goes further, prohibiting any “paraphernalia,” including anything that could be used to perform an abortion, such as certain medical devices and tools.

Federal officials argue that although the abortion provision in the law has not been changed, previous court rulings have limited the reach of the Comstock Act. The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion in December concluding that the law does not prohibit the sending of abortion drugs.

Dickson argues that the Comstock Act should supersede any state law or state constitutional protection. Rebouché said she doesn’t know how it will play out in court.

“There are a number of leaps a court should take, the biggest of which would be that Comstock is still good law and ahead of abortion law,” she said. “It’s a controversial position because Comstock hasn’t been enforced or enforced for decades.”

A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte declined to say whether the organization would continue to sue the West Wendover clinic, citing legal issues.

Dickson’s proposal is now in the hands of West Wendover City Council. He assured the local leaders that if they proceeded to implement the order, his lawyer would represent them free of charge. This attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former Texas Solicitor General and is credited with helping shape the law that allows civil suits against people and providers who “assist and abet” pregnant women in terminating pregnancies. .

Mark Lee Dickson
Mark Lee Dickson presented an anti-abortion ordinance to members of the City Council of West Wendover, Nevada.Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/KFF Health News

An anti-abortion ordinance has been overturned in at least one Ohio city, and other local bodies have voted against such ordinances or opted not to put them to a vote, according to Dickson’s website.

Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said there’s an irony in Dickson’s multistate effort to keep people from crossing state lines for reproductive health care, including including abortion.

“It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic,” Miller said. “It’s an incredibly cynical and politically motivated effort that is largely aimed at confusing and stigmatizing abortion care.”

Miller also pointed to other municipalities in the United States – urban centers like New York, Seattle, Philadelphia, etc. – who have approved local ordinances protecting and expanding access to abortion care.

The West Wendover City Manager, Mayor or members of council should request that consideration of the proposal be added to a meeting agenda so that it can proceed. Holm, the mayor, said she would not include the ordinance for review “at any time.” City council member Gabriela Soriano, the only woman on council, said in late April that she did not know if other council members would pursue the ordinance.

Holm said she was unaware of any outreach from the town of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte regarding the clinic’s progress.

If the anti-abortion ordinance in West Wendover were instituted and prevented a clinic from opening in the town, it would have far-reaching implications for residents. Currently, they face over an hour’s drive each way to the nearest hospital.

For some members of the community, the decision is not so clear cut.

The Cerros brothers said their mother, who is Catholic and Hispanic, is against abortion but supports the opening of the Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover. Years ago, she suffered a miscarriage after driving an hour and a half to Salt Lake City for emergency care.

“There’s a big divide between people who think you kill babies and people who think pregnancy isn’t black or white. Things happen,” Fernando Cerros said. “Sometimes you need care emergency. And a clinic like that would help.

KFF Health Newsformerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the main operating programs of KFF — the independent source for health policy research, polling and journalism.

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