WEST WENDOVER, Nevada — In April, Mark Lee Dickson arrived in this town of 4,500 on the Utah-Nevada border to introduce an ordinance banning abortion.
Dickson is the director of the anti-abortion group Right to Life in East Texas and founder of another organization that has toured the United States in recent years trying to convince local governments to pass abortion bans.
“65 cities and two counties in the United States” have enacted similar restrictions, he told West Wendover City Council members during a meeting in mid-April. The majority is in Texas, but recent successes in other states have given Dickson and his group a boost.
“We do that in Virginia, Illinois, Montana and other places, too,” he said.
The drive to enact local bans has become particularly acute in small towns like West Wendover and Hobbs, New Mexico, which lie on borders between states where abortion is restricted and states where laws guarantee access. They are crossroads where abortion advocates and providers have attempted to set up clinics to care for people arriving from much of the US where states have banned or severely restricted abortion after the US Supreme Court ruled the nearly 50-year-old statewide abortion protections put in place by the United States Court decision in Roe v. Calf.
Residents and leaders in West Wendover and many other towns are grappling with the arrival of outside advocates, including Dickson, who are now claiming a hand in governing their small and otherwise quiet communities.
Dickson’s proposal to West Wendover City Council came after the councillors voted against release received planning permission for California-based Planned Parenthood Mar Monte in March. Officials at Planned Parenthood’s subsidiary told the local authority that the facility will provide primary health care in addition to abortion and other reproductive care. The vote was followed by hours of heated debate during public comment. Then Mayor Jasie Holm vetoed the council’s decision, leaving the application for approval in limbo.
West Wendover is located in northeastern Nevada, 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 was a strategic location for casinos and a marijuana dispensary, legal in Nevada but restricted in Utah and Idaho. Likewise, its proximity to states that voted to limit access to abortion after the Dobbs decision repealing Roe has put the city in the spotlight.
Dickson’s anti-abortion proposal has garnered support from the city’s more conservative residents. But brothers Fernando and Marcos Cerros have questioned anti-abortion efforts. Not only did they want to protect and expand access to abortion, but they also saw a potential victory in their rural community, referred to as a, in the primary care clinic that Planned Parenthood Mar Monte was pursuing medically underserved area by the Federal Administration for Health Resources and Services.
Fernando Cerros, 22, said Planned Parenthood offered a solution to the region’s health shortage “on a silver platter.”
“And it was rejected. I have to do what I can to bring it here,” he said.
The Cerros brothers have attempted to form a group to support access to abortion and start the Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, but have found it difficult to sustain. They said they felt outnumbered by residents who support Dickson. Marcos Cerros, 18, said he attends Catholic mass in West Wendover every Sunday and parishioners there are regularly exposed to inflammatory anti-abortion language.
Abortions up to 24 weeks have recently been protected by law in Nevada and in the state legislature approved a bill enshrine the law in the state constitution. To become law, the measure must be passed again during the next Nevada legislative session in 2025 and voter approval in 2026.
Last year, after the Dobbs ruling, was the then governor. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, issue an implementing regulation similar to those in other states Protecting patients who seek abortion from criminal prosecution by states where it is not legal.
Idaho’s anti-abortion laws are among the most restrictive in the country. Currently, the state only allows abortions in certain cases of rape and incest, or to save the mother’s life. In April the State made headlines After lawmakers there passed an “abortion trafficking” law that criminalizes helping a minor cross state lines to have an abortion or obtain abortion pills without parental consent.
Extreme disparity in abortion policies from state to state is the new normal, and local challenges are “what we are facing,” said Rachel Rebouché, dean of the Beasley School of Law at Temple University and a co-author of a current research work Examination of legal reality according to Dobbs. “The arenas of conflict are multiplying, and that is the complex legal landscape we live in.”
Dickson’s strategy in creating what he calls “unborn cities of refuge” involves invoking a 150-year-old federal law restricting the shipment of abortion pills. But Dickson argues that the law goes further and bans any “paraphernalia,” including anything that could be used to perform an abortion, such as certain medical devices and tools.
Federal officials claim that although the abortion provision in the law has not changed, previous court decisions have limited the scope of the Comstock Act. The Office of Legal Advice of the Ministry of Justice issued an opinion concluded in December that the law does not prohibit the mailing of abortion drugs.
Dickson argues that the Comstock Act should replace any state statute or constitutional protection. Rebouché said she wasn’t sure how things would play out in court.
“A court would have to take a number of steps. The most important of which would be that Comstock is still good law and pre-empts abortion law,” she said. “It’s a controversial rule because Comstock hasn’t been enforced or used for decades.”
A spokesman for Planned Parenthood, Mar Monte, declined to comment on whether the organization would continue to operate the West Wendover clinic, citing legal issues.
Dickson’s proposal is now in the hands of West Wendover City Council. He assured local officials that his lawyer would represent them free of charge if they proceeded to implement the ordinance. That attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former Texas Attorney General and is being held responsible co-creation of the law This allows civil lawsuits against individuals and providers who “assist” pregnant women with abortions.
Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said there is an irony in Dickson’s state efforts to prevent people from crossing state lines for reproductive health care, including abortion.
“It would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so tragic,” Miller said. “It’s an incredibly cynical, politically motivated attempt designed primarily to sow confusion and stigmatize abortion care.”
Miller also pointed to other municipalities across the US — urban centers like New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and more — that have passed local ordinances to protect and expand access to abortion care.
To move forward, the City Manager, Mayor or West Wendover councilors would need to request that consideration of the proposal be placed on the agenda for the meeting. Holm, the mayor, said she will not submit the ordinance for consideration “at any time”. City council member Gabriela Soriano, the only woman on the city council, said in late April she wasn’t sure other city council members would follow the ordinance.
Holm said she wasn’t aware that Planned Parenthood Mar Monte had reached out to the city about moving forward with the clinic.
If the anti-abortion ordinance were introduced in West Wendover and prevented the opening of a clinic in the town, it would have far-reaching effects on residents. They currently have to drive more than an hour in either direction to the nearest hospital.
For some community members, the decision is not so clear cut.
The Cerros brothers said their mother, a Catholic and Hispanic, is anti-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 huge divide between people who believe you kill babies and people who believe pregnancy isn’t black and white syndrome. “Things are coming up,” said Fernando Cerros. “Sometimes you need emergency care. And such a clinic would help.”
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