(Photo illustration, iStock)

Grayson County is a beautiful, rural place in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia. Formed in 1793, Grayson is home to winding two-lane roads, farms, and a handful of small towns.  The New River bisects an eastern section of Grayson on its way north toward West Virginia.

In March this year, Mark Lee Dickson arrived from Texas to speak to the community about his organization, Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn.  He visited Grayson again in May and addressed the Board of Supervisors.  His purpose is to establish another “Sanctuary for the Unborn” county in the U.S..  If Grayson’s Board of Supervisors passes the ordinance, the county of about 15,400 residents will become the third in the U.S. to codify an abortion ban.

The national debate over abortion is a lightning rod for conflict, and Dickson is building a lucrative career from stirring acerbity in rural areas and small towns.  County boards and city councils receive several personal visits from Dickson, who makes the trip from his home in a bedroom neighborhood outside Longview, Texas. 

In 2019, Dickson launched his new effort for “sanctuary” cities. Officially, the sanctuary cities organization doesn’t accept donations, and it’s not incorporated.  To date, approximately 67 small towns have been guided by Dickson to pass ordinances criminalizing abortion, which paves the way for banning prescription abortions by mail.  A 19th-century law called the Comstock Act, which prohibits the transfer of anything of “immoral nature, or any drug or medicine, or any article whatever, for the prevention of conception, or for causing unlawful abortion,” is in Dickson’s toolbox to further erode abortion access.  

Counties and small towns who invite the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn effort to their communities experience intensely emotional and deeply religious conversations in public civic space. 

Despite the Supreme Court’s vote eliminating abortion protections under Roe v. Wade, the American Civil Liberties Union continues to advance cases against policy that limits or eliminates abortion.  Small localities and counties approving “sanctuary” ordinances will incur legal expenses defending their new legislation.  Long-term, these lawsuits will affect local budgets for road maintenance, law enforcement, and family services.  Simultaneously, law enforcement agencies will add abortion policing to their burden.

Losing Roe v. Wade protections has affected doctors’ practices and the numbers of students pursuing degrees in medicine.  Rural areas already suffer from the closure of hospitals and clinics,  and now it will become even more difficult to recruit medical professionals to remote communities.  According to KFF,  a non-partisan health information nonprofit, a survey of 2,000 medical professionals revealed that 76% will not consider working in communities, counties, or states with abortion restrictions.  Maternal death rates are 62% higher in states with abortion restrictions or bans than in states without these limitations.  Clinics that offered abortion among its list of healthcare services are shuttering, taking with them all of the other medical care services.

Counties and small towns who invite Dickson’s Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn effort to their communities experience intensely emotional and deeply religious conversations in public civic space.  The comments session during Grayson’s county meeting in May was fraught with conviction and zealous Christianity – 31 spoke in favor and two spoke against the ordinance.  Neighbors took turns in front of a microphone, where they were allotted three minutes to express their support or dissent.  More meetings are scheduled with opportunity for “public comments.”  

Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn is successful at leaving behind bitterly divided and often dangerous communities with hurting neighbors.

Consider Grayson’s 15,400+ residents; most will not speak up at meetings, write letters to the editor or send personal emails to county supervisors.  A primary reason for not voicing an opinion publicly is enduring the fallout from family, friends, and neighbors.  Recent events point to harassment, violence, threats, and even death for expressing favor for protecting abortion care.  It’s dangerous to be pro-choice.

Because most residents don’t join the public debate, localities who invite Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn to their neighborhood could consider the thousands of people they represent from whom they won’t hear a word.  It’s this majority of constituents who should be in the forefront of every elected official’s mind. It is their civic duty to develop policy that serves a common good. 

Regardless of how local officials vote in a final passage for or against abortion bans, one thing is clear: Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn is successful at leaving behind bitterly divided and often dangerous communities with hurting neighbors.  A movement called “pro-life” may have considered it a win when Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, but is it really?

Sara June Jo-Saebo is the founder of the Midwest History Project and author of I Have Walked One Mile After Dark in a Hard Rain, a book that uncovered new facts about an 1848 settlement of Black Americans in Wisconsin.  She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Mark Lee Dickson’s organizational affiliations. Dickson is with Right to Life of East Texas, not Texas Right to Life. Dickson told the Daily Yonder that he has not received any financial support from Texas Right to Life. The Daily Yonder regrets the errors.

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