WASKOM, Texas (KSLA) - About one hundred people squeezed into a wood-paneled board room Tuesday for the monthly city council meeting in the small town of Waskom.
City workers were bringing in extra chairs as the five aldermen filed into the room, ready to consider things like renewing health insurance for city employees, authorizing payments for bills, and banning abortions.
All items on the agenda would pass unanimously, including a resolution declaring Waskom a so-called “sanctuary city for the unborn” and an ordinance that seeks to criminalize most abortions in the city limits.
Just before the meeting’s planned 4:30 p.m. start time, a staffer sat a chair in the front of the room and announced that there were none left. Residents continued to arrive, looking around the room and waving at friends.
“This is a good place to see everyone in town,” quipped a lady in the back after greeting someone she hadn’t seen in a while. Mayor Jesse Moore would later say the turnout was higher than any other meeting since he took office in 1995.
As the number in attendance rose, so did the temperature in the room. Some began using their copies of the meeting agenda to fan themselves as the meeting began with a welcome and a prayer.
Mark Lee Dickson, the director of the Right to Life East Texas, was the first to address the council. He stood facing the aldermen with his notes and his bible in hand.
“Waskom is a vulnerable city," said Dickson. “There’s been discussion of an abortion clinic moving to Waskom. We are urging you to take action to protect the unborn and prevent abortion clinics from opening here.”
Dickson and the East Texas chapter of Right to Life, a national pro-life advocacy organization, devised the new ordinance that bans abortions and emergency contraception like morning after pills — with exceptions for cases of rape, incest, and if the mother’s health is at risk.
Under the new law, anyone providing an abortion in the town could be fined up to $2,000 per offense. Those penalties would only be enforced if Roe v. Wade is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Dickson began constructing the ordinance around the end of May for that exact purpose, to issue a direct challenge to the 1973 Supreme Court decision.
He says the fear of an abortion clinic coming to the town was the basis for the proposal. However, no abortion providers are actively considering expanding there.
Waskom, a town of about 2,000 people, sits on the Texas-Louisiana state line. While the Texas legislature did not pass new abortion restrictions in this year’s session, the Louisiana legislature joined many other southern states in passing a bill banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected.
Dickson and other anti-abortion advocates believe that Louisiana-based providers — like the Hope Medical Group for Women 20 miles away in Shreveport — will choose to move across the state line where abortion laws aren’t as strict.
Supporters of the ordinance circulated a news article from 1991, when the former director of the Shreveport clinic was reportedly considering such a move. But Hope Medical Group’s current director said Monday that the clinic has no intention on moving to Waskom, or anywhere else in Texas.
Nevertheless, Dickson and two other men gave impassioned speeches to the council as residents clapped and shouted “amen” and other praises back at the speakers.
Before calling for a vote, Mayor Moore warned the aldermen that the city is likely to be sued if the ordinance passed. Jimmy Dale Moore, who sits on the council, noted that the city lacked the resources to fight a legal battle.
“We don’t have the possible millions of dollars that it would take,” said the alderman. “We can’t pay those kind of attorney’s fees.”
According to the mayor, the city’s attorney opposed the ordinance because it would have taken him several more weeks to determine the legal implications.
Rusty Thomas, a pro-life advocate who traveled from Waco to speak in support of the measure, urged the council to pass the ordinance anyway.
“God won’t leave you hanging,” said Thomas.
That seemed to be good enough for the five men, who ultimately all raised their hand in favor of the ordinance as the room erupted in applause.
Neither the mayor or Mr. Dickson had heard of any threats of lawsuits as of Wednesday.
“I’m sure they’re coming our way,” said Dickson. “The people of Waskom know they’re coming but we have to do what’s right.”
The American Civil Liberties Union has issued a response to the council’s vote.
“Waskom’s ordinance, which claims to ban emergency contraception and abortion care, demonstrates its lack of concern for the health of its citizens,” said Anjali Salvador, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, in a statement Wednesday. "The ability to access contraception and abortion care is critical to people’s health and dignity. No one’s access to health care should depend on where they live.”
Former Texas congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke responded to the ordinance in a post on Facebook:
All but a dozen of the meeting’s attendees left after the vote. The council and the mayor stayed to finish the meeting, discussing things like how much money they should spend to cut down several overgrown trees.
Meanwhile, residents gathered outside City Hall to talk about what happened inside. Three lifelong residents of Waskom stood together on the lawn, reminiscing about old times when gas was cheap and abortion was illegal.
Trudy Springer, a former school teacher, thinks this ordinance puts the city back on the right track. “This is the best thing in the world,” said Springer. “This is what you call Waskom.”
“I’m proud," said Julie Gill, “I wanted to be here to see it. I know 99% of this city will stand behind the unborn.”
The new law takes effect immediately, but the community will have to wait to see if it’s challenged.
For his part, Moore isn’t worried about the future.
“I’m not concerned at all,” said the mayor. “I support the board in what they decided.”
The group outside began talking again about the past and how the generations that came before them would be proud of the meeting’s outcome.
“All our parents are buried out here,” said Leonard Johnson as he pointed west. “They would have rolled over in their graves if this ordinance didn’t pass."