Most political observers know Texas as a key battleground for conservative Christian victories in banning abortion. But progressive people of faith in the state have a long history of fostering resistance to the assault on abortion access. Texas was a major hub in the Clergy Consultation Service, cofounded in New York City by Dallas native Howard Moody in 1967 to help women find competent and compassionate doctors willing to perform abortions. In 1970, Texas attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee started the road to their Supreme Court triumph in the Roe v. Wade abortion-rights case by garnering support from the Women’s Alliance at First Unitarian Church of Dallas. Today, liberal faith leaders across the state—some of whom began transporting pregnant Texans to New Mexico clinics after the Legislature passed a six-week ban on abortion last year—are assessing the still-hazy legal limits for helping women in a post-Dobbs world.

In the public debate, the religious right has been one of the loudest voices in favor of limiting abortion access; against that backdrop, the activism of pro–abortion rights clergy members stands out. But these leaders are not unrepresentative. Texans consistently tell pollsters they are in favor of at least some form of abortion access. Recent polling in the state hasn’t broken down respondents by religious affiliation, but nationally, among Christian denominations, only white evangelical Protestants oppose abortion access by a significant majority (about 70 percent). In Texas, only 21 percent of voters are white evangelical Protestants. (For the past few years, polls have shown Catholics to be evenly split on the issue; however, one poll conducted in May—after the Dobbs leak—had 64 percent supporting legal abortion in “all” or “most” cases.) 

Still, however unpopular abortion restrictions are, accessing the procedure in Texas is now a crime except in cases of “a life-threatening physical condition . . . that places the female at risk of death.” Thus, the question many faith leaders face isn’t whether they are willing to break the law; it is how far they are willing to go. Erika Forbes, an ordained interfaith minister based in Dallas, has already decided. “Historically, there’s a tradition of clergy sneaking people out of Texas,” she said. “I’m obviously not going to divulge any names, but I’m looking at my list of clergy, and there’s probably ten that have already decided that they’re willing to be arrested” for continuing that tradition. “And, of course, my name was at the top of the list.”

Other Texas clergy members say they do not need to go so far as to break the law—not yet, at least. “There is a reboot of the Clergy Consultation Service,” said the Reverend Daniel Kanter of First Unitarian Church of Dallas, though organizers haven’t decided on a name. In the CCS of old, volunteers were relatively brazen in their outreach, running classified ads that touted help for “problem pregnancies.” The new group, Kanter said, is doing nothing illegal. “Our reboot is about helping navigate high- and low-access states to abortion,” he said. “We’ve figured out how to do this within the law. There is no activity that I’m involved in that can be interpreted as supplying the means to access abortion.”

How can the group help women “navigate” abortion laws without “supplying the means to access abortion”? Kanter won’t say. “We’re not talking specifics. Especially in Texas.”

Last September, Forbes, Kanter, and other faith leaders began financially supporting and logistically assisting individuals who wanted abortions after the Supreme Court allowed Texas’s Senate Bill 8—which restricted abortions after embryonic cardiac activity was detected (about six weeks after conception) and allowed private citizens to sue anyone who performed such an abortion or helped someone obtain one—to come into effect.

Prior to the passage of SB 8, Kanter and the other volunteers aided Texans seeking abortions by offering supportive counseling at a local reproductive care clinic. The law cut the number of people they saw at the clinic to almost zero; the restriction on abortions after six weeks meant that many Texans were ineligible for abortions before they even found out that they were pregnant.

So Kanter, along with other pastors and rabbis, began accompanying patients to a reproductive care center in New Mexico. Once a month, traveling in groups of twenty, they would start their day at the Dallas church at 5:30 a.m., fly into Albuquerque for the procedure, and return the same evening. That program ended in July, after the Dobbs decision was handed down. 

Amelia Fulbright, a reverend at the Congregational Church of Austin, had been planning to travel to Albuquerque with the September 2022 group. Now, she said, lawyers have advised the activists that there is a way to provide aid without breaking Texas law. And if that changes? “That’s the whole conversation now. Are we willing to do it if it’s not legal?”

While Kanter is reluctant to describe what kind of program exists now, he is passionate about pointing out that a program is needed. “At Southwest Women’s Center here in Dallas, we used to see six hundred women a week” in the process of seeking abortions, he said—women to whom his group offered pastoral care. “We’re now trying to help ten to twenty women a week. The clinic is seeing maybe a hundred women come in but the clinic can’t help them, beyond confirming they’re pregnant. Where are the five hundred other women—mostly poor women—where are they going? What are they doing to their bodies?”

One of Kanter’s colleagues was told by an abortion-seeker that a friend suggested a capful of bleach would terminate the pregnancy. “And they’re taking the [abortion] pills if they can get them. Taking them alone is not a nice thing to go through, and it doesn’t always work,” he noted. “There are so many things we don’t know, because [the pregnant individuals] are not in the clinic getting care, they’re out in the communities, and I don’t know what they’re doing.”

Erika Forbes is helping to coordinate faith leaders’ responses to Dobbs as the manager of faith and outreach for Just Texas, a coalition of congregations involved in social justice activism. Just Texas extends its umbrella over a few issues, including LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform; in 2021, it began to recruit “Reproductive Freedom Congregations.” These communities have formally discussed, voted on, and adopted three principles, including the promise to “trust and respect women” and to allow all their congregants to make “reproductive decisions, including abortion” without “stigma, shame, or judgment.” Finally, the congregations must affirm that they “believe access to comprehensive and affordable reproductive health services, including abortion, is a moral and social good.” As of last fall, more than two dozen congregations—mostly mainline Protestant churches, and some synagogues—had officially joined. Just Texas reported that seventy additional congregations had started the process to produce the formal affirmation. 

That number is a fraction of the hundreds of Texas congregations that have formally affirmed their support for LGBTQ rights. Still, Forbes is optimistic that more faith leaders will now rally to the cause of reproductive justice as well. “Clergy are subversive by nature,” she said.

“Clergy are subversive by nature.”

Subversiveness is relative, of course. The degree to which religious leaders are willing to proactively aid women who seek abortions is the point of true separation. A synagogue in Florida has gone so far as to file a lawsuit challenging the state’s abortion ban based on religious freedom, arguing that a pregnant woman’s right to bodily autonomy is a part of her faith. To restrict her access to abortion is, under this legal theory, analogous to restricting her right to practice any other aspect of Judaism. 

In the Christian tradition, the devout can find support for abortion access through a variety of lenses, though the strongest argument might be that the Bible does not mention abortion at all. It was a nonissue for most Protestant sects for so long that in 1976, three years after Roe legalized abortion nationwide, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to “affirm our conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services.”

For most activist clergy, however, the reason to assist women in obtaining reproductive care isn’t about what their scriptures say or don’t say about abortion itself—it’s simpler than that. Kelly Levy, a rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue in Austin, points out that those seeking abortion—and the people who care about them—are suffering, and it’s the clergy’s duty to help relieve suffering. “There’s obviously the physical need for people to receive this vital medical care. But there’s an emotional level as well,” she said. “And the domino effect on so many other things. It’s trying to counsel people when there’s so much unknown.”

Kanter is more blunt about abortion bans like Texas’s: “I’m just a clergyperson that believes creating a war on the poor is antithetical to being a person of faith. This isn’t medicine, this is ideological terrorism.”

For her part, Forbes said she is only positioned to give this care because she was able to choose whether to continue the pregnancies she had as a young woman. “I’ve already had my two abortions. The work that I’m doing now, the reason I’m willing to risk my life, my income, and my name is because somebody else risked their life, their income, and their name for me,” she said, referring to the Clergy Consultation Service. “And so I must—by obligation, by duty—do the same.”

Others are still weighing the decision to engage in the civil disobedience that Forbes has embraced. Some have concerns about their children and possible financial repercussions. Levy convened a family meeting about it. “My parents have told me they would gladly bail me out of jail for doing work like this,” she said. 

“I’m willing to be some level of criminal—just not sure what level yet,” Fulbright said. “I’ll be grateful for those who are willing to be one hundred percent criminal.”

“I’m willing to be some level of criminal—just not sure what level yet.”

Megan Peglar, a reverend at Austin’s University Christian Church, said the reversal of Roe has sparked a sense of urgency in her congregation, where there was previously “a reluctance on our part to get super political.” Peglar’s denomination, the Disciples of Christ, is generally liberal on social issues—affirming of abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and transgender rights—but that doesn’t mean members are actively involved in advocacy. “It’s been a bit of a purple church,” she said. “We have not taken the step to be a Reproductive Freedom Congregation. We don’t get partisan.” 

That is changing. “After SB 8 passed, I had two congregants come to me to talk about it,” she said. “After Dobbs, I had many more congregants ask me about the denomination’s official position. One person stopped me after the service and asked, ‘What can we do?’ It’s just not something that’s ever come up before. I think we might be more willing to step into the fray, whereas before we might have just agreed to disagree.”

Even as pro–abortion rights activists ponder what legal lines they will and won’t cross, the lines are still being drawn. Is it currently illegal in Texas to help someone obtain an abortion out of state? Americans’ freedom of movement—the right to cross state lines without restriction—was established by the Supreme Court in 1868 and reaffirmed in 1931. More fundamentally, but perhaps worth mentioning explicitly, the very structure of American government—what makes us a patchwork of “United States” and not a homogeneously governed geographical area—enables each state to make its own laws, for that state and only that state. This is called states’ rights, a concept that Texas conservatives have historically claimed to support.

However, the “bounty hunter” enforcement mechanism of SB 8—upheld by the current Supreme Court—has created a workaround of previously recognized rights for any state bold enough to legislate against them. And when it comes to cracking down on avenues for abortion care, the Texas Legislature has been very, very bold.

“Everyone is afraid they’re going to be arrested, pulled into court, sued,” said Kanter. “It’s not even the six-week ban; it’s the fact that we’ve got three laws and nobody really knows what’s next.”

Those three laws are SB 8; the pre-Roe law that banned abortion in the state, which was never repealed; and Texas’s more recent “trigger law,” which went into effect post-Dobbs on August 25. This tangled web of policy could be used by eager prosecutors to ensnare groups like Kanter’s in costly witch hunts, even if such actions are ultimately blocked by the courts. Already, the Texas lawmakers behind SB 8 have pursued several legal gambits against secular groups aiding access to abortion, including private companies that want to pay for their employees to travel out of state. 

This summer, former Texas solicitor general Jonathan Mitchell petitioned in state court to depose the heads of two abortion-access funds to gather information that he hopes will be used in lawsuits against them. Republican state representative Briscoe Cain, who represents a district just east of Houston, sent cease-and-desist letters to both an employer and abortion funds that have stated a willingness to pay for abortion-related travel, accusing them of criminal activity. Cain cannot bring charges himself, of course, but he warned that local prosecutors can (even if none have so far). He also plans to introduce legislation in the next session that would allow prosecutors to go after such funding, even if the transactions are outside their jurisdictions—a measure aimed at the five Democratic district attorneys, all but one of them in major metro areas, who have pledged not to prosecute violators of the new abortion laws.

Abortion funds are mounting their own offensive move by suing Attorney General Ken Paxton for creating a de facto, if not legislated, restriction on the right to interstate travel. In August, a coalition of funds sued in a U.S. district court to force the attorney general to clarify whether he intends to find a method to pursue criminal or civil penalties against them for funding abortions that don’t take place in Texas. They want a preliminary injunction to ensure that Paxton won’t go after them. 

Lawyers for the state have argued that the attorney general can’t be responsible for the chilling effect, calling the plaintiffs’ fear of prosecution “self-imposed.” The district judge hearing the case, Robert Pitman, is not convinced that the fund providers are imagining things. In a lengthy hearing in late September, he appeared to sympathize with the plaintiffs’ position, noting that the state had not said outright that the funders are, in fact, safe. “Isn’t that a fair thing for them to ask for?” the judge said

Paxton, for his part, has actively avoided giving a definitive answer under oath. His public statements and social media posts show his ardent opposition to abortion in general. He designated the day of the Dobbs decision an annual office holiday “as a memorial to the 70 million lives lost [because] of abortion,” and he has said he will support any local district attorney who follows Cain’s lead and sues private companies for covering employees’ travel costs to get reproductive care.

Thus the plaintiffs’ hesitancy to believe that Paxton would stay his hand when it comes to prosecuting them. For his part, Paxton has embraced the legal gray area, enabling him to threaten action without ever having to risk a federal court reaffirming the right to interstate travel or, for that matter, states’ rights.

When the abortion funders attempted to subpoena Paxton to hear from the AG himself on his plans (or lack thereof), Paxton fled his home in the passenger seat of his wife’s pickup rather than be served. Pitman then quashed the subpoena, temporarily letting Paxton off the hook—only to reinstate it days later, when the abortion funds produced emails showing that the subpoena came only after multiple attempts to get Paxton on the stand voluntarily. Pitman said his ruling against the original subpoena had been made “on the assumption that counsel for Paxton had made candid representations to the Court.” He also denied the AG office’s assertion that Paxton was too busy to make an appearance. “It is challenging to square the idea that Paxton has time to give interviews threatening prosecutions,” he said, “but would be unduly burdened by explaining what he means to the very parties affected by his statements.”

Rabbi Levy summed up the general feeling of the faith activists about what’s next in Texas: “They are definitely going to try to criminalize everything.” Because she doesn’t want to call on her parents to bail her out of jail, the rabbi began trying to come up with plans to assist those traveling out of state in ways that wouldn’t be specifically related to the abortions: providing childcare, looking after their homes, covering for them at work. Those forms of aid will be legal, she thought. Then she realized, maybe not. New laws against something like babysitting for someone getting an abortion, she said, “may not stand up [in court], but [abortion-rights opponents] don’t care. They’re going to try.” 

For his part, Kanter is ready. “If they want to pull a clergyperson like me into the court and sue me, I welcome that,” he said. “I’ll be sure to wear my collar.”

“If they want to pull a clergyperson like me into the court and sue me, I welcome that. I’ll be sure to wear my collar.”

At Fulbright’s church, some members are preparing themselves for further crackdowns by stockpiling abortion pills. “And then there are members trying to move out of Texas,” Fulbright said. “I mean, those are kind of the two responses.” 

Levy said her congregants are worried that civil liberties beyond abortion rights will be the next ones at risk—as implied by Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion in the Dobbs case. “I’ve had three or four same-sex couples reach out to me to do what I would call an emergency wedding, because there is a great fear that their rights as a same-sex couple are going to be overturned next,” Levy said. “So it’s never been just about abortion access. It is about all our rights as humans.”

Same-sex couples have cause to be worried. Mitchell, one of the authors of SB 8, recently won a suit challenging the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurers cover prophylactic treatment against HIV. The class action, in a strategy that apes the successful case brought by Hobby Lobby regarding contraception coverage, alleged that the policy “forces religious employers to provide coverage for drugs that facilitate and encourage homosexual behavior, prostitution, sexual promiscuity, and intravenous drug use.”

In September, U.S. district judge Reed O’Connor agreed with Mitchell’s argument and further found that aspects of the ACA’s definition of preventive care, which includes birth control, violate the Constitution’s Appointments Clause. (O’Connor is the judge who deemed the entirety of the ACA unconstitutional in 2018, a decision later struck down by the Supreme Court.) Should the case stand and birth-control coverage no longer be mandated, it seems likely that the downward national trend in unwanted pregnancies will be reversed. The new CCS will have even more work to do. 

Angela Williams, a Presbyterian pastor who worked on reproductive-justice issues with the Texas Freedom Network until she relocated to Arkansas last year, is happy to have churchgoers shocked into action by recent state laws and court decisions. She continues to work with Texas congregations as a part of the national group SACReD, the Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity.

Williams said on-the-ground reproductive-rights organizers have found their phone lines flooded by well-meaning would-be volunteers, though the groups aren’t equipped to assign meaningful work to everyone. “Abortion providers are too busy talking to their lawyers, trying to navigate the landscape. They need to be interfacing with people needing abortions in this very moment. They can’t do that because everyone is flooding the phones. ‘Hey, I’ve got a room. Hey, I can fly. Hey, I want to donate my miles. How do I do that?’ It creates chaos,” Williams said. “And when there is chaos, that’s when anti-abortion wins.” 

Her organization trains congregations interested in getting into reproductive-justice activism over the longer term. She said that church members (“mostly older, mostly white”) are often surprised to learn that the training is not about getting out on the streets or smuggling people across the border. Once they’re plugged into existing networks, Williams said, congregations can do the more-tedious work of assessing what specific resources they have to offer. She points out that they will need to ask themselves, “What does it look like for us to support people within our congregation and those in the broader community?” Then, she said, they need to ask who wants to help. A large congregation might have “lawyers and doctors and pharmacists and stay-at-home moms and retired folks and teachers and students,” and all of them can offer different skills. “Once you’ve gone through that, then you can say, ‘Okay, who is willing to drive people? Who is willing to take them to the airport? Who is willing to accompany folks on a flight to New Mexico?’ ”

Amid all these fears and anxious preparations, Reverend Forbes argues that those in favor of abortion access have reason to be hopeful. Yes, Texans with money for travel and flexibility in their work and childcare arrangements will probably always be able to somehow find abortion access. But banning the procedure outright, as Texas has, is uniting abortion-rights activists across class and racial lines in a way that previous attempts to merely limit abortion did not. “The fall of Roe,” she said, “means we’re all on the same page.”

Ana Marie Cox is a columnist for The Cut and the author of Dog Days: A Novel and a forthcoming memoir.