Texas Anti-Abortion Groups Are Arguing Over How Radical Their Movement Should Be

It’s bishops vs. the Freedom Caucus in this showdown.

Anti-abortion activists from around the US gather in Washington, DC January 19, 2018 for the annual 'March for Life.' / AFP PHOTO / Eva HAMBACH        (Photo credit should read EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-abortion activists march in Washington on Jan. 19 for the annual March for Life. Eva Hambach/Getty Images

An ugly public spat has broken out between two sets of Texas anti-abortion advocates in advance of the state’s March 6 Republican primary. One group, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, is accusing another, Texas Right to Life, of attacking perfectly pro-life Republican incumbents. Texas Right to Life says that the conference supports “death panels” and that conservatives in the state legislature aren’t doing enough to ban abortion.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, the public policy arm and organizing federation for Catholic parishes in the state, has gone so far as to tell Texas Catholics to stop volunteering with Texas Right to Life and to stop letting the group use the grounds of Catholic churches or schools. In a recent letter, the conference stated that “[p]art of the dispute is rooted in Texas Right to Life’s rejection of incremental pro-life reforms, which bishops support following the guidance of St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae.” Texas Right to Life is a state affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, the country’s largest anti-abortion advocacy group, which did not return a request for comment.

The letter also alleges that Texas Right to Life’s legislative scorecard, which ranks each legislator’s voting record on abortion, manipulates the data in a way that punishes sitting Republicans. “We believe this publication is not based on a fair analysis of a legislator’s work, but rather upon whether the legislator has followed voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life,” the letter says. “Unfortunately, a number of legislators who have consistently voted for pro-life and end of life legislation have been opposed by Texas Right to Life.”

The “voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life” apparently involve a lot more than abortion and end-of-life issues, leaving room for a staunch opponent of abortion rights to nevertheless run afoul of the group. In a December post titled “Accountability Season Begins Now,” the organization lists several “conservative” issues its members should address, in addition to abortion, like sanctuary-city protections, government spending, and “allowing men to prey in women’s bathrooms.” The post castigates Texas Republicans for failing to pass enough right-wing legislation, despite holding significant majorities in both chambers of the legislature and all statewide offices.

At Texas Monthly, R.G. Ratcliffe suggests that clues to Texas Right to Life’s politics may lie in its funding. He reports that just four families—all committed religious social conservatives—have supplied 95 percent of Texas Right to Life’s $1.9 million in political funds since January 2017. The vast majority, $1.25 million, came from fracking-equipment manufacturers Dan and Farris Wilks, who have poured money into Tea Party–activist trainings, anti-gay hate groups, and organizations that teach that the Bible opposes unions and the minimum wage. Another $100,000 came from Tim Dunn, who spent years trying to oust Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, a bête noire for far-right Texas Republicans.

The political agenda of these funders helps clarify why Texas Right to Life is currently opposing 14 incumbent Republican legislators, several of whom scored 100 percent on the group’s 2017 “pro-life” scorecard. For some, any allegiance to Straus, who notoriously resisted a proposed anti-transgender bathroom bill, was sin enough to earn a spot on the group’s hit list. The organization’s political director told Ratcliffe that one legislator on the list had a perfect anti-abortion voting history but “supported and propped up moderate House leadership that obstructed strong pro-life bills”—in other words, sided with Straus against the more conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, which counts Texas Right to Life as an enthusiastic supporter.

The current rift between Texas Right to Life and the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops is something of a proxy, then, for a larger ideological battle in the Republican Party. It’s also a natural consequence of an argument anti-abortion groups have been having for decades. Texas Right to Life favors an all-or-nothing approach that often leads to bills that don’t pass constitutional muster. The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and other groups, including Texans for Life, take their victories where they can get them, even if that means accepting imperfect legislation in the hopes of improving it in a friendlier political future. According to the Catholic doctrine cited in the conference’s recent letter, a vote on such legislation “does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.” In practical terms, a restriction on abortion rights that Catholics consider “unjust” might include exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the pregnant person.

Texas Right to Life claims to support incremental approaches to anti-abortion advocacy too. “One day we will live in a society where all unborn children and pregnant women are offered legal protection from abortion, but until that day arrives, it is our mission to extend legal protection to as many innocent lives as politically possible,” the group states in a post on its website about rape and incest exceptions. But its legislative scorecard and attacks on vehemently anti-abortion conservatives befit an organization more committed to ideological purity than actual lawmaking. Texas Right to Life is particularly fixated on what it calls a “discriminatory loophole” that allows exceptions to abortion restrictions—say, a ban on abortions performed after 24 weeks’ gestation—in cases of fetal abnormalities. (Texas Right to Life calls them “disabilities.”) Because such abnormalities often mean a fetus will not be able to last until the end of a pregnancy or survive outside the womb, such exceptions are popular among voters and, consequently, many anti-abortion legislators.

Nevertheless, Texas Right to Life is punishing legislators who supported a motion to table an amendment that would have eliminated this exception, calling it “a hostile anti-Life motion” that presented “a test of loyalty to House leadership … versus loyalty to the Pro-Life cause.” The group added, “not all Republican House members who profess Pro-Life views actually believe that all unborn children, regardless of health conditions, should be protected.” On the legislative scorecard, which rates legislators on a 100-point scale and uses a stoplight color code to tell followers how to cast their votes, a 10-point demerit that leaves a lawmaker at 90 percent is enough to knock him or her down from green to yellow. One of the organization’s recent “Disappointment Profiles” of Republican legislators featured Lance Gooden, rated 90 percent, whose sole transgression was introducing an amendment that would have prohibited health insurance companies from covering abortion procedures as part of regular plans, then yielding when the Speaker of the House told him it was not germane to the rest of the bill. The policy later passed as its own bill.

By positioning itself as an uncompromising roadblock to incremental legislation, Texas Right to Life is trying to mobilize single-issue anti-abortion voters to replace conservative Republicans with members of the far right. Depending on the makeup of the next Texas legislature, the strategy could backfire for pro-lifers: Without a critical mass of fundamentalists, radical anti-abortion bills would simply not pass. In any case, many would likely get crushed in the courts, as did the state’s ban on the most common second-trimester abortion procedure. Texas Right to Life’s funders may not care. If the organization succeeds in ousting supporters of a House leadership the far right hates, the legislature will greenlight more Freedom Caucus–approved bills that have nothing to do with abortion, and moderate Republicans will consider changing their ways. “We are about improving pro-life policy, education, and legislation, not eating our own,” wrote the leader of Texans for Life, another anti-abortion group, in a post criticizing Texas Right to Life’s extreme tactics last year. “[U]nlike others, we do not lob gratuitous or false attacks against lawmakers or use our issue as a weapon during the election cycle.” A not-insignificant wing of the Republican Party is betting on the reverse strategy. What’s the use in staking ground on a highly emotional issue if it can’t be weaponized?