The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mark Lee Dickson paved the way for the Texas abortion ban, one small town at a time

Mark Lee Dickson, shown here during a worship service at Trinity Church in Lubbock, Tex. (Brad Tollefson/For The Washington Post)
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PLAINVIEW, Tex. — Mark Lee Dickson arrived at College Heights Baptist Church in his signature uniform: backward baseball cap, button-down shirt and Vans sneakers. As he began preaching, he held a thumb-sized rubber fetus, complete with a fully-formed face.

“An abortion clinic in Waskom, Texas, is not an Austin problem or a Washington, D.C., problem. It’s a town problem,” he said, urging the audience not to wait for state or national leaders and instead to pass their own local ban.

Over the last two years, Dickson, 36, has given a similar speech in more than a hundred towns across Texas, lobbying them to become “sanctuary cities for the unborn” by prohibiting abortions within their limits.

Even his allies were once skeptical of his efforts. But in May, the West Texas city of Lubbock adopted one of Dickson’s bans, effectively forcing the city’s Planned Parenthood to stop performing abortions.

And Dickson’s legislative approach is now at the center of Texas’s six-week abortion ban, the strictest in the country.

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Dickson says he has no personal experience with abortion. He often tells audiences that he is a “36-year-old virgin” who sees himself as a millennial missionary to keep abortion clinics out of Texas. It’s something that he’s been passionate about since he was a child, attending county fairs with his grandfather’s antiabortion group. He says his own battles with depression have shown him how precious life is.

Dickson began his work on sanctuary cities two years ago, when he teamed up with conservative lawyer and former Texas solicitor general Jonathan F. Mitchell to draft a law to keep a clinic from opening in the small border town of Waskom.

The measure incorporated a novel legal strategy designed to avoid court review that had blocked other abortion bans. Instead of government officials enforcing the ban, private citizens would be allowed to sue abortion providers, making it financially difficult for them to continue to operate.

This approach would be harder to challenge in court, since government officials were not enforcing the law but instead outsourcing enforcement to private individuals with the threat of financial ruin for abortion providers.

To sell his idea, Dickson would show up at town meetings with what’s known as a “heartbeat bear,” a stuffed animal that plays ultrasound heartbeats from mothers he said he convinced to not have abortions.

His measure was passed by Waskom’s all-male council in 2019. Since then, similar laws have been passed by 38 other cities and towns. They were all a warm-up for what is now the legal mechanism enshrined in the Texas abortion ban.

Abortion supporters call Dickson’s approach “diabolical,” and say it could have serious implications for abortion rights. Since the Texas ban took effect, at least 10 states have expressed interest in passing laws with similar ”Orwellian enforcement technique,” according to NARAL Pro-Choice America.

“Mark Lee Dickson is, with his powerful lawyers, the primary face and architect of bringing this terrifying vigilante law across Texas,” said Kristin Ford, acting vice president of NARAL. She and others also say Dickson is an “extremist” who attended the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (Dickson said he did attend the rally, but did not enter the Capitol.)

Antiabortion activists credit him with changing the game.

“He’s dedicated his life to this,” said John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life. “And it’s working.”

'Really a baby in the womb'

By his own account, Dickson has always struggled to find his place in an “out-of-control society,” which he feels “has a horrible sexualized view of women.”

Growing up in Longview, Tex., he was drawn to his grandfather’s “small mom-and-pop Right to Life East Texas organization,” which tabled at the county fair. “That’s a real baby in the womb,” Dickson said, recalling how the group’s display of fetal models affected him.

The suicide of a close friend made him appreciate life even more, he said.

He learned from the church and his grandfather, who battled cancer for years, that “you are not defined by what others say about you,” Dickson said. “What does the Lord think of you? Jesus will always love you.”

After graduating high school, Dickson attended Kilgore College on-and-off. But he left before graduating to pursue ministry work, serving briefly as a nursing home chaplain, a pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Longview, and a security guard at Whataburger.

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In 2012, Dickson began protesting outside Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport, La., near the Texas border.

For years, Dickson was a fixture at the clinic, which he called an “extermination” camp. He drew attention for carrying around frayed stuffed animals with ultrasounds tucked into their bellies.

His goal, he said, was to change minds. And it worked at least once: one woman decided to continue with her pregnancy after an encounter with Dickson at the clinic, according to the Pro-Life LeTourneau group.

A spokesperson for the group described Dickson as “a good guy, we love and respect him. And he helped provide resources for the mother and cover living expenses through donations.”

But some of the clinic escorts for pregnant women trying to obtain an abortion at Hope Medical Group tell a different story.

Melissa Gibson, a former escort, said Dickson used to talk often about the fact that he was a virgin “almost like it gave him a moral superiority.” She said he stood out because he wore comic book shirts and baseball caps and carried his “heartbeat teddy bears.”

“He would try to hide behind this nonthreatening demeanor even as he yelled out to pregnant women, ‘don’t kill your baby,’ ” she said.

Dickson said he talked about being a virgin because people would often ask him, “what’s your abortion story? Did your girlfriend have one and now you regret it?”

He said he would tell them, “I’m a virgin, I’ve only kissed three girls.”

Dickson said his primary message to women entering the clinic was: “This is not God’s will for your life.”

“You can be a great mother to that child,” he said. “If we can help out in any way we are here to help.”

'Outside-of-the-box-way' for bans

In early 2019, Dickson said he became concerned that the abortion clinic in Shreveport might relocate to nearby Waskom.

The clinic director said she hadn’t planned to move. Dickson showed a newspaper clip from 1991, where a clinic director at the time said she would consider a move.

But Dickson and the Waskom mayor began discussing whether it would be possible to become the state’s “first sanctuary city for the unborn,” preemptively stopping the clinic from moving into Texas.

Dickson brought his idea to Texas Sen. Bryan Hughes (R), who reached out to Mitchell, a former clerk to the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Mitchell had written a 2018 law review article laying out an “outside-of-the-box way” to ban abortion and baffle the courts, Dickson said.

Laws banning the procedure at six weeks, called “heartbeat bills,” often got thrown out in court because judges found that they violated the constitutional right to an abortion enshrined in Roe v. Wade.

But what if, Mitchell argued, lawmakers passed a measure that instead allowed private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against abortion providers and anyone who “aids and abets” an abortion.

This approach would be harder to challenge in court, since the government was not technically outlawing abortion, it was just making it financially burdensome for abortion providers to stay in business.

Dickson and Mitchell drafted legislation that included this legal mechanism. Within months, they had convinced the all-male city council in Waskom, a city of about 2,000, to pass the law, becoming the first municipality in the country to essentially outlaw abortion.

Over the next two years, Dickson crisscrossed Texas in his Ford truck, pushing towns and cities to enact similar “sanctuary city” ordinances.

At least 38 municipalities have followed suit, including two in Nebraska and one in Ohio.

'Used to be' a proud Texan

Earlier this year, the city of Lubbock, Tex., passed a sanctuary city bill through a voter referendum after the city council came out against the ban, warning that it would drag the city into expensive legal battles.

Planned Parenthood sued, alleging the new law violated the Constitution. But a federal judge tossed the case, ruling that the group lacked standing to sue because the city wouldn’t be enforcing the law. So the measure has remained on the books. Some lawsuits are still pending.

Abortion opponents watch for violations of Texas ban as providers weigh legal options

Gloria Toti, the women’s ministry director of Trinity Church in Lubbock, called Dickson “a modern-day Gideon.” “He sees a road and takes it in the name of what’s right,” she said.

Toti and her band of “grandmas” helped mobilize voters to pass the sanctuary city law in Lubbock.

At a recent event, the women surrounded Dickson like he’s a rock star. Toti’s husband, Carl, introduced him as “the man of the hour. Thank God in the Great State of Texas, we stand for life. And we will win. This man Mark Lee Dickson on the front lines of this fight.” 

Opponents of the law, which they have dubbed the “spy-on-thy-neighbor law,” see it as deeply harmful, especially to poor women who can’t afford to travel out of state or take off work to get an abortion.

“Reporting someone for money is ridiculous, and if the state has money to allocate those funds to something like that, why can’t they instead use the bounty funds for education?” said Aaron Pruitt, 37, who lobbied against the law in Lubbock and knows Dickson.

“My biggest grievance is using the Lord as kind of a way to strong arm and manipulate people,” he said. “Which in my opinion, as a believer in Christ, is the exact opposite of what a Christian should be doing. I used to be so proud to be Texan, now it’s pretty backwards and embarrassing.”

Dickson’s win in Lubbock was a triumph for his movement — it was the first time one of his ordinances forced a clinic to stop performing abortions.

And his ordinances also served as a model for an even more far-reaching law.

In 2020, Mitchell and Hughes teamed up to draft a Texas law that incorporated a similar legal mechanism to effectively ban abortions after six weeks. Like the “sanctuary city” bills that Dickson had worked to pass, the Texas law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers — and anyone who “aids and abets” a woman seeking an abortion — for $10,000.

The law passed a few months ago and went into effect on Sept. 1, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. The justices in the conservative majority said the law raises constitutional concerns, but they allowed it to remain in effect while litigation continues.

Dickson, who is also the director of Right to Life East Texas, has been actively promoting the Texas abortion ban on social media over the last several weeks.

He wrote on Facebook that if anyone wanted to sue abortion clinics, he would help them find an attorney. That post caught the attention of several abortion rights group, who named him in their lawsuit to block the law. (Mitchell is representing Dickson in a lawsuit brought by a coalition of abortion providers and advocates that is pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.)

But at a recent event on the night the abortion ban went into effect, Dickson barely mentioned the new Texas law. His message was much broader: abortion is a sin, one of many committed by big-city liberals. Dickson’s website describes Austin as “the city of death.”

“Austin is not Texas, should not really be in Texas any way,” Dickson told the crowd, drawing laughter and applause.

At College Baptist Church, Dickson said traditional values were being hijacked by an “LGBTQ agenda” and he accused wealthy Democrats of buying up land to open abortion clinics in Texas and elsewhere.

He also repeated the false claim that President Donald Trump — “the most pro-life president in history” — won the 2020 election.

At the end of Dickson’s talk, he takes some questions from the audience about the viability of his plan. What about Roe v. Wade, someone asks.

Roe v. Wade is a court opinion, and they got it wrong,” he said, a crowd pleaser that always makes small-town Texans feel like he’s one of them: “People should fear God more than the ACLU.”