A vicious war of words is tearing Texas’ anti-abortion movement in half

“It’s very difficult, this type of family war."

Anti-abortion activists, including Megan Copeland (r.), pray outside a Planned Parenthood clinic that offers abortions, on February 22, 2016 in Austin, Texas. CREDIT: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Anti-abortion activists, including Megan Copeland (r.), pray outside a Planned Parenthood clinic that offers abortions, on February 22, 2016 in Austin, Texas. CREDIT: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

An increasingly messy war of words between anti-choice organizations in Texas has made headlines this week, drawing attention to wider chasms dividing the movement.

A written directive published last Thursday by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (TCCB) singled out Texas Right to Life, advising parishes and other Catholics to avoid any volunteer work with the organization.

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“Texas Right to Life often opposes the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and has implied that the bishops do not faithfully represent Church teaching,” the directive reads, dividing the advice into three sections: conflicts on “pro-life reform”; conflicts on end-of-life reform; and Texas Right to Life’s voter guide.

Texas Right to Life, TCCB alleges, has opposed “incremental pro-life reforms” in the name of embracing absolutism, while portraying TCCB as supportive of both euthanasia and “death panels.” Moreover, TCCB claims Texas Right to Life has targeted certain lawmakers with a record of opposing abortion, using rhetoric that TCCB says is based not on “fair analysis”, but on whether legislators have specifically adhered to Texas Right to Life voting recommendations.

“Catholics must continue to engage,” the directive continues. “This guidance should not be used to discourage pro-life ministry or advocacy in any way.”

In a statement released Saturday, Texas Right to Life responded to “recent politically motivated attacks” without singling out any individual parties. The statement defended the organization’s political endorsements in particular. Naming Texas Speaker Joe Straus and Rep. Byron Cook, both outgoing Republicans who are not seeking re-election, the organization slammed the “tyrannical grip” of Republicans who, while opposed to abortion, have not centered anti-choice legislation in Texas.

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“Uncharitable mischaracterizations of our political and policy goals serve only to dissolve the spirit of collaboration that yielded recent legislative victories to protect the most vulnerable in our state—victories that were hard-fought against the leadership of the Texas House,” read the statement.

“Texas Right to Life, our staff, our board, and our members are unapologetic in speaking the truth, including during election time, about which elected officials help or hurt the Pro-Life cause,” it continued. “We are unafraid to forge ahead with focused determination in the wake of political attacks from those who work to keep the Austin Establishment and lukewarm incumbents in power.”

The feud reflects long-standing divisions within the anti-abortion movement across the country. While some organizations and anti-abortion activists favor a hardline, total ban on abortion, others are willing to endorse incremental measures, with the ultimate aim of banning abortion seen as more of a distant goal than a present-day reality. That dispute over tactics — and priorities — has endured for years despite rarely rising to the realm of national media coverage.

That seems to be changing in Texas. The country’s second-largest state has some of the most strident anti-abortion laws in the United States and only 27 abortion clinics for a population of nearly 30 million people. That’s down from the more than 40 clinics in existence before the state’s HB2 law came into effect, and while a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling threw out HB2, the legislation’s impact still lingers in a state where many pregnant people struggle to obtain reproductive health care. That environment should spell harmony for anti-choice organizations — but it hasn’t.

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That’s thanks in no small part to Texas Right to Life. Billed as the “oldest and largest statewide pro-life organization”, Texas Right to Life takes an aggressive stance on abortion and reproductive issues more broadly. The organization’s tactics include actively targeting other anti-choice groups viewed as being overly moderate in their approach.

Texas Alliance for Life and Texans for Life Coalition, two of the groups recommended as Texas Right to Life alternatives by TCCB, have come under fire from Texas Right to Life’s executive director, Jim Graham, who has labeled both “fake pro-life organizations.” Graham has also nicknamed Texas Alliance for Life Executive Director Joe Pojman “Joe Poison.”

That nickname has less to do with Pojman’s politics — which are staunchly anti-choice — and more to do with calculated decisions, like testifying against unconstitutional anti-abortion legislation likely to be defeated in court. Pojman told the San Antonio Express-News that when pro-choice plaintiffs win in court, “We view that as financing the abortion providers.”

Texas Right to Life has not responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on the TCCB directive, or to a number of other in-state publications. But leaders from several organizations weighed in on the feud to local media, including Pojman, who said the split weakens the movement.

“We regret that there is a split in the pro-life movement,” Pojman told the Express-News. “It is not our preference, and we seek to have all the groups working together, but a marriage takes two willing partners.”

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Kyleen Wright, president of Texans for Life Coalition, told the Austin-American Statesman that the TCCB directive was long overdue.

“This is really big,” she said. “It’s very, very unfortunate that it came to this. But for our organization, and me personally, to be maligned and slandered for several years, and for our candidates and people who work in good faith to advance good policy down in Austin to be unfairly and maliciously attacked, that hasn’t been good for our movement, either,” she continued, pointing to Texas Right to Life’s attacks on her organization.

“It’s very difficult, this type of family war,” she concluded, referencing the larger anti-choice movement.

Anti-choice organizations have plenty of company. Texas Right to Life is allied with Empower Texans, a conservative group that targets center-right Republicans. A 2014 Dallas Morning News editorial named Michael Quinn Sullivan, the group’s president, as a towering figure in the state — one on a “mission to purge the GOP establishment of people who flunk his purity test for conservatism.”

That mentality seems to drive Texas Right to Life as well, per both the TCCB directive and lawmakers themselves. In addition to outgoing Straus — the state’s first Jewish Speaker of the House, who Texas Right to Life’s Graham has called “Herr Straus” — a number of other conservative politicians have also drawn the organization’s wrath. State Rep. Four Price (R-Amarillo) told the Amarillo Globe-News that he was grateful to TCCB for speaking out. 

“My initial reaction is I compliment the bishops for having the courage to speak out,” he said. “They are saying it’s not OK to mislead people, especially during this election season when finding facts can be hard.”

Price, an incumbent, faces a challenge from Drew Brassfield in next month’s primary. While Price opposes abortion, Texas Right to Life endorsed Brassfield.

Unsurprisingly, Brassfield himself seems to have sided with Texas Right to Life in the feud.

“I suppose everyone is entitled to have their own opinion,” Brassfield told the Globe-News. “I just simply want to be a legislator who saves babies from abortions in law, and I know that Texas Right to Life is a reliable group that does that.”

He’s not alone. Deer Park state Rep. Briscoe Cain (R) argued that TCCB are “literally going after a group for being too pro-life” and slammed the bishops for their stance on Texas Right to Life’s vote scorecard.

“It is undeniably true that there are multiple members in the House Republican Caucus who have voted in favor of abortions. I have absolutely no sympathy for organizations that defend and support legislators who vote in favor of murderous activity,” Cain told the Statesman. Texas Right to Life, he argued, does not “provide cover for pro-choice Republicans.”

There are very few pro-choice Republicans in Texas, with notable exceptions. Lawmakers targeted by Texas Right to Life, in most cases, are firmly opposed to abortion and support the restricting of reproductive health access more broadly. But that distinction is proving increasingly meaningless as the broader anti-choice movement grapples with its identity.  While it’s unclear how tensions in Texas will translate on a national level, the feud symbolizes a split in the anti-choice movement — one that isn’t going away.