WASKOM, Tex. — Almost overnight, a small town nestled in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt has become a battleground for America’s deeply divisive debate over women’s reproductive rights.
There are no abortion clinics in Waskom, located near the Louisiana border, but last month an all-male city council passed an ordinance largely written by an antiabortion group declaring it a “sanctuary city for the unborn.”
Officials insisted it was a preventive measure, designed to allay the council’s fears that the signing of strict abortion bans in the neighboring state could prompt clinics to move across the border and into their town of about 2,200 residents.
Responding to the proclamation, abortion rights activists from Austin, around 300 miles away, erected two billboards on the edge of town that asserted “Abortion is freedom” and directed women needing care to a website with information on local services.
That small act of external resistance has galvanized many of the of men and women who live in the town.
Heated disagreements have broken out on local Facebook groups since the billboards appeared, and a small number of women have reached out to the billboard sponsors to thank them for their visible protest.
Others in town said they were considering volunteering to collect signatures from those who oppose the ban and setting up a support network for those who need it.
The majority of local residents of Waskom interviewed by The Washington Post said they supported the ordinance and resent more liberal parts of the state plastering their views on billboards in a largely conservative community.
“I think they did it to take a dig at Waskom,” said Jayna Lay, 37, who owns a local garage. “They send the wrong message in my opinion. ‘Abortion is freedom,’ that’s a messed up phrase. That’s pretty much saying, ‘Kill your children and you’re free.’ That’s crazy to me.”
Lay said she knew the council’s action would cause controversy. “The day before the meeting, Facebook exploded. But I would never see Waskom having an abortion clinic anyway; it’s such a small town full of churches.”
Corey Gossens, 31, who works in the railroad industry, was one of the few Waskom residents willing to speak out publicly against the ban.
“It baffles me how a group of all white middle-class men adopted an ordinance making abortion illegal within the city limits of Waskom,” he said. “It’s been my personal experience that some people of this caliber in these small towns are in support of a pro-life stance only when it doesn’t directly involve their lives and their perfect little white-picket-fence world.”
Gossens asserted that men who agreed with the ordinance “would likely drive hours away from home with their pregnant teen daughter in tow for an appointment with Planned Parenthood, if they thought the birth of this hypothetical child would compromise their position in society, or their seat on the church pew.”
He added: “I have seen this myself, and many who remain silent beside me will attest. This is why I feel the billboard is a beautifully and perfectly timed juxtaposition to the absolute insanity taking place in a town that is barely on the map.”
Women living in Waskom who oppose the ordinance and support the message of the billboards would speak only on the condition of anonymity. They said they feared being “shunned” by their churches and, in some cases, even their own husbands.
“A woman should be able to have the right to have an abortion,” said one woman, who spoke with unconcealed fury about the council’s move. “You can’t just take people’s rights away. There is a reason why you get an abortion — we don’t know what happens behind closed doors.
“There are young ladies around here I’ve spoken to whose family don’t believe that an uncle has been raping them. So they’ve been forced to get an abortion. Things get swept under the rug here.
“There are women here who agree with me and a lot who have had abortions but are too afraid to say anything,” she added. She offered no further details.
Delma Catalina Limones, the communications manager for NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, which helped pay for the billboards, said they had no contact with anyone in Waskom until the billboards were erected. “People reached out to thank us for them,” she said.
The city ordinance declared her organization, along with other reproductive rights allies, “criminal,” despite the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. “Organizations that perform abortions and assist others in obtaining abortions are declared to be criminal organizations,” the ordinance states.
It adds that it “shall be unlawful” for any of these organizations to offer “services of any type,” rent office space, purchase real property or establish a “physical presence of any sort” within Waskom.
“We refuse to be intimidated, and we will continue to work to expand and protect abortion access in Texas,” Limones said.
Cristina Parker, communications director for the Austin-based Lilith Fund, an organization that also helped fund and erect the billboards, said her group wanted local women to know abortion was still legal and available to them.
When abortion bans are voted on, “it does create a lot of confusion,” she said.
Jesse Moore, the local mayor, insisted the matter was closed. “We have no intentions whatsoever to go [head] to head with anybody who opposes it,” he said in an interview in his Waskom office. “As far as I am concerned, we are done with the abortion clinic issue.”
Texas has historically been at the forefront of the abortion rights battle. Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision, originated here.
As the state-by-state battle over abortion rights has intensified this year, Republican lawmakers have increasingly pushed strict bans on the procedure as part of a strategy designed to give the Supreme Court the opportunity to overturn the landmark ruling. (Neither side indicated they expect the Waskom ordinance to advance that far.)
Moore insisted the move in Waskom was solely about stopping a clinic from ever opening in the city.
He said he “didn’t hear a word” of opposition from anyone who attended the packed meeting when the ordinance was passed, and that the meeting prompted “the largest crowd I have seen.”
“I want to make clear that we passed that ordinance to keep abortion clinics out of Waskom,” he said. “I don’t like what they [the billboards] say, but they have got that right.”
The abortion clinic closest to Waskom is Hope Medical Group for Women, just over 20 miles across the state line in Shreveport, La. Moore said the council “got wind” that this clinic was planning on relocating, or putting a satellite office in Waskom.
The clinic’s administrator, Kathaleen Pittman, said there was never a plan to move.
“Hope Medical Group for Women never had any intention of moving there,” Pittman said. “Information provided to the city of Waskom was absolutely incorrect.”
Townspeople point to external groups as stirring up confusion and using the town as a front for both sides of the debate to promote their agendas. Lobbying for the ordinance was led by Right to Life of East Texas, whose director, Mark Lee Dickson, applauded the move on Facebook.
“Mark approached us and we talked to him about it,” Moore said. “He and his group came up with an ordinance and a resolution. There were some little changes made to it, and we decided that was the one we were going to go with; we felt like it fit us better than anything we’d seen.”
It is not hard to find residents who are willing to speak in support of their council’s new ordinance. Erin Grable, 47, rejected the idea that an abortion is acceptable in any circumstance.
As she served customers settling down for lunch at Jim’s Bar-B-Que, she described herself as a Christian.
“So of course I don’t believe in abortion,” she said. She said she believed there are a “million other options that nobody wants to talk about,” including adoption.
Asked whether she supported the right of a woman to seek an abortion in cases of rape or incest, she replied: “In my heart, no. I’m a full-on Christian, and I think there are always different things you can do. I pray for people who are lost, in my mind. People who believe in abortion . . . need prayer.”
She also rejected criticisms levied at the male council members who passed the ordinance. “The thing they don’t want to tell you is that 90 percent of the people at that meeting were female,” she said.
“They want to say we are letting men make our decisions. I think that’s ridiculous. We are strong women in Texas; we know what we think and believe all by ourselves, and we will tell you.”
Suzan Maxwell, 58, owns an embroidery printing business, added she, too, is “very proud” of what has happened in the town.
A recent Post-ABC poll found support for legal abortion stands at its highest level in more than two decades, with a 60 percent majority nationwide who say abortion should be legal in most or all cases.
Even in Waskom, some uncertainty surfaced. Speaking on the outskirts of the town, Damon Anderson, 60, a father to one daughter, said he struggles to justify the right to abortion when women have access to birth control. However, he said, in the instance of rape or incest, it was “different.”
He said: “If you got raped or beaten, I think you should have a choice as to whether you want to be a mother or not.
“I wouldn’t necessarily want an abortion clinic in this town,” he added. “I would hate to know that there are babies being killed across the street, but people have got to go somewhere.”