Small rural communities are becoming battlegrounds for abortion access


WEST WENDOVER, Nev. — In April, Mark Lee Dickson came to this city of 4,500 that straddles the Utah-Nevada border to advocate for an ordinance banning abortion.

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

“Sixty-five cities and two counties in the United States” have passed similar restrictions, he told West Wendover City Council members during a meeting in mid-April. Most are in Texas, but recent successes in other states have encouraged Dickson and her group.

“We’re doing this 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 straddle the borders between states that have restricted abortion and states where laws preserve access. They are crossroads where abortion advocates and providers have sought to establish clinics to serve people traveling from large parts of the US where states have banned or severely restricted abortions after the US Supreme Court USA. court decision in Roe v. Wade.

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

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

Located in northeast Nevada, West Wendover is over a 100-mile drive 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. Similarly, its proximity to states that moved to restrict abortion access following the Dobbs decision that struck out Roe has put the spotlight on the city.

A statue of a cowboy named "Wendover's Will" greet guests in West Wendover, Nevada
«Wendover Will» greets visitors to West Wendover, Nev., a community in the far east of the state, along the Utah border. Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez / Health KFF

Dickson’s anti-abortion bill has won the support of the city’s most conservative residents. But brothers Fernando and Marcos Cerros have challenged anti-abortion efforts. In addition to wanting to protect and expand access to abortion, both saw the primary care clinic that Planned Parenthood Mar Monte was seeking to establish as a potential victory in their rural community, which is designated as medically underserved area by the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

Fernando Cerros, 22, said Planned Parenthood offered a solution to the area’s health care shortage «on a silver platter.»

“And it was denied. I need to do what I can to bring him here,” she said.

The Cerros brothers have tried to organize a group to support abortion access and set up the Planned Parenthood clinic in West Wendover, but have found it difficult to sustain. They said they feel outnumbered by residents who support Dickson. Marcos Cerros, 18, said he attends Catholic mass every Sunday in West Wendover and that parishioners there are regularly exposed to inflammatory anti-abortion language.

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

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

Last year, after the decision of Dobbs, the then governor. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, issued an executive order Similar to those of other states protect patients seeking abortion services from being prosecuted by states where it is not legal.

Across the eastern Nevada border, in Utah, abortion is legal up to 18 weeks while Challenges to an activation ban and a movement to clamp down on the licensing of abortion clinics continues through the courts.

Idaho’s anti-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 for abortions or obtaining abortion pills without parental consent.

Extreme variations in abortion policy from state to state are the new normal, and local challenges are «what’s in store for us,» said Rachel Rebouché, dean of Temple University Beasley School of Law and co-author of a recent research paper examine the legal reality post-Dobbs. «The theaters of conflict are multiplying, and this is the complex legal landscape in which we live.»

Dickson’s strategy to create what he calls «sanctuary cities for the unborn» involves invoking a 150-year-old federal law that restricts the shipment of abortion pills. But Dickson argues that the law goes further and prohibits any «paraphernalia,» including anything that can be used to perform an abortion, such as certain medical devices and instruments.

Federal officials maintain that although the abortion provision in the law has not been amended, previous court decisions have limited the scope of the Comstock Act. Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion in December concluding that the law does not prohibit the shipment of abortifacient drugs.

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

“There are a number of leaps that a court would have to make, the most important of which would be that Comstock is still good law and ahead of abortion law,” he said. “That is a controversial decision because Comstock has not been applied or applied for decades.”

A spokesman for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte declined to comment on whether the organization would continue the clinic in West Wendover, citing legal issues.

Dickson’s proposal is now in the hands of West Wendover City Council. He assured local leaders that, if they proceed with implementation of the ordinance, his attorney will represent them at no cost. That attorney, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former Texas attorney general and is credited with help shape the law which allows for civil lawsuits against persons and providers who “assist and abet” pregnant women who terminate a pregnancy.

mark lee dickson
Mark Lee Dickson introduced an anti-abortion ordinance to members of the West Wendover, Nev. City Council.Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez / KFF Health News

An anti-abortion ordinance was walked back in at least one Ohio city, and other local bodies have voted against such ordinances or have chosen not to vote on them, pursuant to dickson’s website.

Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, said there is an irony in Dickson’s multi-state effort 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. “This is an incredibly cynical, politically motivated effort whose primary goal is 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 that protect and expand access to abortion care.

The West Wendover city manager, mayor or council members would need to request that consideration of the proposal be added to the agenda of a meeting to move it forward. Holm, the mayor, said she would not include the ordinance for her consideration «at any time.» Councilwoman Gabriela Soriano, the only woman on the council, said in late April that she wasn’t sure if other council members would follow through with the ordinance.

Holm said she was not aware of any contact with the city by Planned Parenthood Mar Monte to move forward with the clinic.

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

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

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

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

KFF Health Newsformerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces detailed journalism on health issues and is one of the central operating programs of KFF — The independent source for health policy research, surveys and journalism.

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