A new religious right group known as Abolish Abortion Texas is partially behind the state GOP’s new extreme stance on abortion.
“WE THE PEOPLE OF THE SOVEREIGN STATE OF TEXAS DEMAND THE TOTAL AND IMMEDIATE ABOLITION OF HUMAN ABORTION.”
Whenever there’s an abortion hearing at the Capitol, members of Abolish Abortion Texas, a 1-year-old religious right group, are likely nearby, handing out pamphlets with that demand emblazoned on the first page.
Unlike established anti-abortion groups, Abolish Abortion Texas is only loosely organized. It doesn’t have a headquarters, hold official meetings or collect dues. But the group maintains a hard, unyielding line on abortion that makes even stridently anti-abortion activists uncomfortable.
At the Legislature, the “abolitionists,” as they call themselves, make their presence known with abundant anti-abortion schwag, including 6-page, full-color pamphlets replete with Bible verses, illustrations of fetuses, and a man riding a rhinoceros surrounded by elephants.
“We have allowed or sanctioned the murdering of these human images of God in this country, and thereby, we’re bringing on the wrath of God on this country,” member Shelby Luke said. “Sixty million images of God [since Roe v. Wade]. That’s bigger than any Holocaust that the Jews went through.”
Members of the organization explicitly compare their cause to the abolition of slavery.
“The heart of the group is to see how previous generations did not treat all people with equal dignity, in going back to the abolition of slavery,” said member Art Sisneros. “We see that as sort of a rallying point that is very synonymous to what is happening today [with abortion].”
Sisneros, who made news in November when he said he would resign his position as an elector rather than vote for Trump, helps run the Abolish Abortion in Texas Facebook page. The page has about 1,600 likes and is regularly updated with calls for members to attend committee hearings and rallies at the Capitol.
The fledgling group has managed to wiggle its way to the forefront of abortion politics in Texas during its first year. Last May, the Facebook page mobilized members to attend the Republican Party of Texas’ state convention and successfully help propel the “abolition of abortion” to the party platform. Several members testified in support of the plank, which is the most extreme stance the state party has taken on abortion. It’s also among the Texas GOP’s top five legislative priorities this session.
Abolish Abortion Texas has found a close ally in state Representative Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who filed House Bill 948, a proposal to ban legal abortion in Texas by charging women and providers with murder. Tinderholt, who didn’t respond to an interview request, spoke at a February rally organized by the group.
Though the group doesn’t have designated leaders, members seem to agree that activist Wesley Thomas and attorney Bradley Pierce, both of whom pushed for the more extreme abortion plank at the GOP state convention, started the Facebook group and still run the show. Neither responded to multiple requests for interviews and neither is registered as a lobbyist with the Texas Ethics Commission.
Pierce is co-founder of Heritage Defense, “a non-profit legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing the Kingdom of Christ by protecting and empowering the biblical family,” according to the firm’s site.
According to his bio, Pierce “helps defend the parental rights of Christian homeschooling families around the country against threats by social services.” Pierce was student body vice president at Baylor University, according to his bio.
Sisneros and Luke credit Pierce and Thomas for drafting the earliest versions of HB 948 and presenting it to Tinderholt to carry in the House. Micah Cavanaugh, Tinderholt’s chief of staff, said he “discussed the bill with many pro-life individuals during the drafting process,” but he wouldn’t say what role Abolish Abortion Texas played.
The group’s radical strategy can be counterproductive, said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, an influential anti-abortion group. Pojman said he ultimately wants abortion to be banned except in instances when the mother’s health is at risk, but his group refrains from endorsing bills as extreme as HB 948.
“We’re not suggesting that the Legislature pass any bills that would ban abortion … because those laws, under the foreseeable future, would be struck down as unconstitutional by the federal courts,” Pojman told the Observer. “Texas would be forced to pay attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs.”
He cited Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt as an example. The lawsuit challenged House Bill 2, the sweeping 2013 law that led to the shuttering of more than half of the abortion clinics in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled that the law placed an undue burden on women seeking legal abortions. Whole Woman’s Health is now suing the state for $4.5 million in attorneys’ fees. Proposals like Tinderholt’s HB 948 are time-consuming and costly to litigate and “save no lives, and prevent no abortions,” Pojman said.
Abolish Abortion Texas seem more concerned with getting their message out than whether HB 948 passes.
“We’re standing on a standard that we believe is the morally right thing to do,” said Sisneros. “And if that means it passes or doesn’t pass, Tony has done the right thing, and we have done the right thing. It’s up to those that disagree — it’s on them if they don’t pass it, it’s not on us. … It’s an extreme stance, I know.”
From bills that would mandate the burial or cremation of fetal remains to proposed bans on “dismemberment” and “partial-birth” abortions, there is no shortage this session of bills seeking to limit abortion access. But for “abolitionists,” these measures don’t go far enough.
During a March 8 committee hearing on House Bill 35, which would require burial or cremation or aborted and miscarried fetuses, “abolitionists” from all over the state testified that the bill is pointless because it wouldn’t completely ban the procedure.
Members of the group asked lawmakers to amend the bill to completely “abolish abortion.” Some members of the group wore “ABOLISH ABORTION” stickers and gray T-shirts with the movement’s logo — a mockingjay carrying a yellow rose flying out of an upside-down triangle — printed on the back.
“The people are demanding that you just stop the murder of children that gives you the problem of dead bodies to begin with,” said Caleb Head, a group member who traveled from Houston to testify.
At one point, committee chair Byron Cook, the Republican author of the bill, was visibly frustrated that the testimony wasn’t on HB 35.
“You’re hurting your cause by doing that,” Cook said.