Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
DALLAS — The anti-abortion activists carried two brochures as they walked from doorstep to doorstep on Tuesday evening. The first was small and brightly colored, boasting a picture of a diverse group of smiling women under the headline “Free Women’s Health Services in Dallas.”
The second brochure was four pages of type and printed in stark black and white. It bore a very different title: “Search, Sue, and Shut Down Texas Abortion Facilities.”
“The abortion industry has been victimizing women and children for decades—and Texans now have the power to stop it,” announced the brochure, which was carried by a group dispatched by Students for Life of America, a national organization that seeks to mobilize anti-abortion young people. “It’s TIME to abolish abortion in Texas.”
It was a call to action for anti-abortion advocates in Texas, who, in the last week, have been handed an unprecedented power. A recently enacted law bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before many people know they’re pregnant. But unlike other similar laws in a handful of conservative states, which have been blocked from taking effect, the Texas government does not intend to enforce the ban by itself.
Instead, it’s turned the ability over to its people. Now, complete strangers may be able to sue anyone who “aids or abets” someone who gets an abortion past that six-week benchmark. If their lawsuits are successful, these anti-abortion vigilantes can be rewarded $10,000 in damages—plus attorney fees. (If they lose, the person who they’ve sued isn’t able to recover those fees.) Anyone in an abortion patient’s orbit could face a lawsuit: the providers, the people who help pay for the abortion, the people who drive the patient to a clinic.
The idea that Texans could snitch on their neighbors over abortions has outraged people across the country. Late Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Biden administration was preparing to sue Texas.
But the activists fanning out in Dallas on Tuesday, who were mostly teenagers and people in their early 20s, had no such concerns. Ardent and ready to be called to action, they practically glowed with victory. And the activists wanted the local citizens to join in: Their brochure included a link to a website, run by Texas Right to Life, that encourages people to become “pro-life whistleblowers” by submitting anonymous tips about potential law-breakers.
Sarah Zarr, a Students for Life staffer and their leader for the evening, said that if she suspected someone of breaking the ban, she would sue.
“It’s stepping up and doing the right thing and saying, ‘Hey, there was an injustice done,’” Zarr said. “Just like hopefully you would if you saw somebody being beat up or you saw somebody stealing something in a store.”
Activist Melanie Salazar, 23, said that filing a lawsuit would not be “ideal.” But if she knew the law had been broken, she said, “then I hope I’d be brave enough to say something.”
“Many governing entities haven't enforced what pro-life people, pro-life legislators, pro-life people who voted, want, which is protection for preborn life, more resources for women,” Salazar added. “Since the government has let us down in many ways, the Texas heartbeat law really gives the power back to the people to enforce the law.”
The advocates first gathered on Tuesday evening in a parking lot of a Baptist church in northern Dallas, a meeting point that was not-so-coincidentally located across the street from an abortion clinic. There were also two pregnancy centers nearby; these types of centers do not refer or perform abortions but instead offer services like pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, and baby supplies.
“Since the government has let us down in many ways, the Texas heartbeat law really gives the power back to the people to enforce the law.”
The activists donned pink and teal shirts, then split into cars and were dropped off—frequently in pairs—to walk down preassigned blocks and knock on doors for the next few hours. Some of them had driven hours to be there, from cities like Austin, and would have to drive back that same night.
The recent law didn’t drive the anti-abortion activists into the streets of Dallas on Tuesday. They were, technically, out knocking on doors to spread knowledge about a new campaign by Students for Life, called “Abortion-Free Cities,” which spreads awareness about resources for pregnant people. They only handed out the pamphlet about the new Texas abortion ban to people who specifically asked them about it.
Relatively few people answered the activists’ knocks, but they were undeterred. If no one was home, they knew to leave the “Free Women’s Health Services” brochure at the door. That brochure included a “neighborhood alert” about the local abortion clinic and a list of services offered by pregnancy centers. It also included a QR code that directs people to a website where people can explore options for dealing with unplanned pregnancies, as well as get “pregnancy and parenting resources” in their state. Under the option “abortion,” the website warns that “abortion will end the life of your child” and suggests people check out a famously anti-abortion doctor’s description of abortion procedures.
The whole operation was deeply sophisticated. The activists rehearsed their speeches with one another ahead of approaching a door, and sometimes checked off houses on their phones as they went. When they managed to snag someone at the door, they practically vibrated with amazement over the possibility that they had, in some small way, helped save a life. At one house, two activists spoke to a man who identified himself as a teacher. He was polite but clearly not invested in the conversation; by its end, his replies had dwindled into “wow,” “okay,” and “alright.” Still, afterward, one activist marveled at how this teacher could pass an anti-abortion message onto young people.
After a string of uneventful visits to houses on one ritzy Dallas block, Zarr notched a victory. When a 23-year-old man, Michael Griffin, came to the door, he initially told Zarr and her fellow activist Faith Elwonger, 24, that he believed that abortion was, as he put it to VICE News later, “a woman's right to decide what they want to do with her body.”
By the end of Zarr and Elwonger’s meeting with Griffin, he was no longer so sure.
“They taught me that when an unborn child is considered alive, when they can feel pain, when they have a heartbeat. So now I think there actually should be a kind of time frame in which women should be allowed to get abortions, as prior to when the unborn child is considered alive,” Griffin told VICE News. He couldn’t exactly nail down, though, what that time frame should look like.
Many abortion opponents say that a fetus is “alive” from the moment of conception, but add that fetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks of pregnancy—a propositionthat has led multiple states to ban abortion after that benchmark. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, however, fetuses cannot feel pain until after viability, which usually occurs at around 24 weeks of pregnancy.
What constitutes a “heartbeat,” and when it arises, is even more contentious. Texas’ six-week ban purports to ban abortion as soon as a “heartbeat” is detected, but what abortion opponents label a “heartbeat” is better understood as the “electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart,” the then-president of ACOG told the Guardian in 2019, when such “heartbeat”-based bills began to surge in popularity.
But people don’t tend to spend their days puzzling out the intricacies of abortion science, politics, and law—which means that if you’re a well-organized, well-spoken activist like Zarr, every door is an opportunity to bring overwhelmed, underinformed people over to your side. It’s the same philosophy that has propelled countless political door-knocking campaigns.
“We kept hitting houses that were not home. We were like, ‘Where are you on a Tuesday night?’” Zarr confessed to the activists towards the end of the night, after they’d finished door-knocking and reconvened at the church parking lot. “When you leave the literature, that is important too. You never know what this piece of paper is going to do, because this has the resources on it. I’m always like, ‘Okay, I can be encouraged, because I don’t know the chain reaction.’”
The Texas law itself is the result of a decade-long chain reaction set in motion by dedicated, coordinated anti-abortion activists, buoyed by groups like Students for Life. Over the last 10 years, activists have managed to pass hundreds of state-level abortion restrictions that gradually chipped away at abortion access.
Their campaigns have had national impact as well. In the wake of the Trump administration, the Supreme Court is now stacked with conservative justices; last week, in a 5-4 vote, they rejected a request from abortion providers to halt the Texas law. The court is also slated to soon hear a separate court case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.
“This is the beginning of a really hopeful future where we end abortion and have a post-Roe America.”
The “Abortion Free Cities” Students for Life campaign is rooted in the idea that, very soon, Roe will be overturned, handing states the ability to regulate abortion as they see fit. And for activists like Zarr, the battle in Texas is, in large part, already won.
While they plan to make sure more people know about alternatives to abortion, abortion opponents don’t even need to file lawsuits to enforce the new ban; abortion providers have already started turning away patients who show up too late for an abortion. A lawsuit could not only be a PR nightmare but also give providers a chance to challenge the law and, potentially, strike it down.
The “Abortion Free Cities” campaign is already active in roughly 20 cities, Zarr said, and Students for Life hopes to expand to more soon.
“This is the beginning of a really hopeful future where we end abortion and have a post-Roe America,” she said.