Six small Nebraska towns are trying to ban abortion. Will it change anything?

For three weeks this July, Pastor Bill Forbes left his home around 5 p.m. and didn’t return until sundown.

The Lutheran pastor went door-to-door in his western Nebraska town asking his neighbors the same question: Would they sign a petition in support of Paxton’s ban on abortion?

Paxton, Pop. 516, does not have an abortion clinic. It is 230 miles from the nearest abortion provider in Denver. It is farther from Lincoln, the closest provider in Nebraska.

According to Forbes, 138 people have signed the petition. This November, the Paxon residents will decide.

Six Nebraska cities, including Paxton, will vote this year on whether to ban abortion within city limits as the national debate on abortion makes its way to the small-town ballot box. Three Nebraska cities have already enacted their own bans. Other cities are collecting signatures to try the same — including Bellevue, home of one of the state’s three abortion clinics.

If passed, these ordinances will allow citizens to sue clinics, doctors, and nurses for performing abortions within city limits. Many also allow lawsuits against Nebraskans suspected of “aiding or instigating” an abortion — actions such as driving a woman to a faraway abortion clinic or even donating to an abortion fund.

What these efforts have in common: Mark Lee Dickson, an anti-abortion preacher from Texas. Armed with ready-made ordinances, knowledge of local government procedures, and a team of volunteers to collect signatures, Dickson crisscrosses the country spreading abortion bans from town to town.

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The proposed regulations vary slightly. The goals are the same: ban abortion and abortion-promoting drugs. Make it unlawful to have an abortion or assist someone to have an abortion. Some go so far as to restrict Internet access to abortion-related websites.

In practice, these regulations may not change much. Except for Bellevue, there is no abortion clinic in any of the towns and villages. Getting abortion pills in the mail via telemedicine is illegal in Nebraska. Legal experts say the regulations may not be enforceable in a state where abortions are legal for up to 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“There is a very strong argument that even if local governments have some authority, they would be preempted by … state laws,” said Anthony Schutz, law professor at the University of Nebraska College of Law. “I think it’s pretty clear that cities don’t have the power to regulate this.”

Pro-choice advocates in these cities worry that the ordinances — whether enforceable or not — will have a deterrent effect on women trying to find care.

“I’ve seen people do it on their own terms. I worry about those lives,” said Erin Pascoe, a registered nurse in Curtis, one of the cities that voted on a ban in November. “Making it more inaccessible will only make it worse.”

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For locals who are pushing the issue, like the Lutheran pastor in Paxton, the proposed bans serve as a message to the rest of Nebraska. About what they believe. About the disconnect they feel from the state’s eastern subway. And about what they want: an abortion-free Nebraska.

“We in the Panhandle are being pushed around by eastern Nebraska,” Forbes said. “Changes that must take place to protect our country will not come from Washington, and they will not come from Lincoln. There will be real change down here where the grass grows.”

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When Laurie Viter’s pastor asked her if she would try to ban abortion in her city of Brady, she said yes.

Viter is a counselor at the Women’s Resource Center at North Platte, a antenatal abortion health center that does not perform or refer to abortions. She was disappointed when Gov. Pete Ricketts didn’t call a special session to pass some sort of ban after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade lifted in June.

Viter had seen what the village of Hayes Center had done and she wanted to do the same in Brady.

In April 2021, the Hayes Center became the first Nebraska village to outlaw abortions within city limits.

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The southwest Nebraska city of 224 joined a group calling itself Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn — a group that now includes 49 cities across the country.

Like the Hayes Center, these locations are mostly rural, sparsely populated, and hundreds of miles from a stationary abortion clinic.

And like the Hayes Center, they passed all of the abortion bans after linking up with Dickson, the Texas preacher.

Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas, first proposed a local abortion ban three years ago in Waskom, Texas.

The ordinance came with a unique legal twist – it would be enforced through private enforcement. Individual citizens would be those who would sue clinics, doctors and nurses for performing abortions, or ordinary citizens suspected of “aiding or favoring” one, such as driving a woman to a clinic.

Local politics became state law in Texas, a law that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor said “made the citizens of the state used as bounty hunters.”

In Nebraska, versions of the original ordinance have now been passed at the Hayes Center, Blue Hill and Stapleton.

All summer, residents and Dickson’s group collected enough signatures to vote on the ban this November in six other Nebraska cities — Arnold, Brady, Curtis, Hershey, Paxon and Wallace.