On the fourth Saturday of every month, antiabortion protesters gather outside the Planned Parenthood in Waco, Tex., the only clinic that performs abortions for almost 100 miles in any direction. Each one picks out the sign they’ll stand beside for the next two hours, selecting their favorite antiabortion message from a truck emblazoned with the largest sign of all: “Texas is Pro-Life.”
The truck’s billboard has new significance now, two months after Texas banned nearly all abortions, said John Pisciotta, director of the antiabortion group Pro-Life Waco. Even if the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately blocks Senate Bill 8, the law will have sent an important message to the world, he said: Abortion is not welcome in Texas.
“The eyes of the country, the eyes of the world, are on us,” he said.
The Supreme Court heard arguments on S.B. 8 on Monday, in a three-hour hearing scheduled just 10 days ahead of time. While no ruling has been issued — one is expected any day — conservative justices Brett M. Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett asked questions that conveyed some skepticism of the law’s constitutionality, suggesting they might be willing to side with the four justices who voted to block the law the first time it rose to the high court in early September. The law, which bans almost all abortions after six weeks, before most people know they’re pregnant, is enforced by regular citizens rather than government officials.
Whether the Supreme Court strikes down the Texas law, many antiabortion activists in the state view the last two months as a triumph that has stopped hundreds of abortions and shined a national spotlight on Texas’s antiabortion stance. Activists are also looking to Dec. 1, when the high court will hear arguments on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that could eliminate a pregnant individual’s constitutional right to an abortion.
Even if it’s struck down, S.B. 8 has “staying power,” Pisciotta said.
“If we don’t win the World Series, we still have significant victories.”
Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, one of the largest abortion providers in Texas, said she was encouraged by what she heard as she listened to the arguments from the Supreme Court steps on Monday.
“All of us lifted our eyebrows when Barrett asked her opening question, and Kavanaugh, too,” she said, referring to the two conservative justices who raised concerns that the ban was designed to usurp federal law and constitutional review. “I think they don’t like how it’s structured and don’t want to find ways to keep the ban.”
Even considering the questions from Barrett and Kavanaugh, Mark Lee Dickson, who worked closely on the language of the highly controversial enforcement part of the ban with conservative attorney Jonathan F. Mitchell, said he remains “prayerfully optimistic.”
“We just have to wait and see,” Dickson said. “It’s not over and I felt our arguments were really strong.”
Dickson has traveled from town to town in Texas since 2019 asking municipalities to ban abortion, using various versions of the citizen enforcement method that is a hallmark of the statewide abortion law. He’s passed his ban in 37 towns in Texas.
He said he noticed some of the conservative judges seemed to care “how they were perceived,” he said, which he believes may lead them to vote against S.B. 8, widely seen as an extreme antiabortion law.
“Politics may play a role here because the judges don’t want to be seen as political hacks for one side or the other,” Dickson added.
Whatever the Supreme Court decides on the ban’s enforcement method, he said, “there’s not a pro-life person out there who is regretting the passage of this and the lives it saved.”
In Corpus Christi, the Pregnancy Center of Coastal Bend — an antiabortion pregnancy crisis center — saw an uptick in clients as soon as the law took effect, said Jana Pinson, the executive director. After a slight lull in late September, she said, their numbers are up again. Before the ban, her center used to perform six or seven ultrasounds every day, she said; now they’ll do 10 or 11. The counseling sessions, held immediately after the ultrasound, are longer and more emotionally fraught than they used to be, she said, as employees discuss options with clients who intended to get an abortion but have passed the six-week limit.
Pinson said she has seen 70 “abortion-minded” and 126 “abortion-vulnerable” women since Sept. 1, clients who were either set on abortion, or leaning toward that option, many of whom were prevented from accessing the procedure because of S.B. 8. She keeps track of these women, she said, logging each one in the center’s software as “AM” or “AV,” so she and her staff know to check in regularly with a text message to make sure they have the support they need.
While this group of clients is resistant to motherhood at first, Pinson said, the law has given her the opportunity to “walk alongside them until the joy starts rising.” Ultimately, she said, most are happy they chose life. (Many women who get abortions do not regret them, according to a landmark study in 2020 that found that immediately after their abortions, nearly all respondents said they had made the right decision.)
Even if the Supreme Court blocks the law, Pinson said she’ll consider S.B. 8 a major victory.
“It’s been eight weeks of beautiful, nonstop lives saved,” Pinson said. “You have to wonder what lives are going to come out of this that wouldn’t have existed.”
The abortion clinic in Waco was one of two Planned Parenthood locations in the state that stopped providing abortions entirely when S.B. 8 took effect. They resumed abortion care on Oct. 14.
During the seven-week hiatus, protesters still showed up outside the clinic almost every day it was open. Their presence hasn’t stopped patients from seeking “the expert, compassionate care they need,” said Sarah Wheat, chief external affairs officer at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas.
Pisciotta and his volunteers — his “troops,” as he calls them — greet every patient who drives into the clinic, handing them a pink tote bag stuffed with a teddy bear, antiabortion pamphlets and a bottle of nail polish. Even when abortions stopped, he said, they wanted to be there for the “abortion-minded women” who might try to get an abortion elsewhere. As long as Planned Parenthood is open, he said, people will be referred for abortions out of state.
To the Planned Parenthood staff, he said, “I think we would appear unrelenting.”
“They might think, ‘Will they never, ever let go?’ And of course, we will not.”