Deep Divisions in Texas' Powerful Anti-Choice Movement

Battle reflects Lege's growing extremism

Illustration by Jason Stout

When the state health department debated its latest abortion restriction – a law tucked away in the 2017 legislative session's Senate Bill 8 that requires women to bury or cremate fetal remains after abortion – the Texas Catholic Conference of Bish­ops attended the hearings, eagerly offering to finance burials for the remains – or as they called them, "children" – at their Catholic cemeteries. During a federal court case that challenged a similar law last year, TCCB Executive Director Jennifer Allmon said, in all earnestness, that women who choose to abort in turn forfeit their right to make the decision about what happens to their fetal tissue, so it should then fall to the state, much like a neglectful mother would be forced to hand over her child to CPS.

The TCCB, which characterizes abortion as a "tragic mistake," opposes any and all funding for abortion providers, including dollars for contraception, while supporting state funding for crisis pregnancy centers – nonmedical clinics that deter women from abortion – and favoring a ban on research using fetal tissue acquired from abortion. They're also against same-sex marriage and behind abstinence-only sexual education. In short, the federation for the state's Roman Catholic dioceses, which lobbies for public policy, is vehemently anti-choice, and in the political sphere is often considered to be as conservative as they come.

If the Texas Alliance for Life is your mild-mannered but staunchly anti-choice Christian radio station catering to one small community, Texas Right to Life is Rush Limbaugh.

But even for the TCCB, the state's most influential anti-abortion group is too fanatical. In late February, the bishops issued an advisory letter publicly severing ties with Texas Right to Life, the advocacy and educational organization that bills itself as the "oldest, largest, and only statewide pro-life organization in Texas," and thus exposed a long-simmering schism between the aggressive anti-choice group and its counterpart organizations.

"We urge parishes not to participate in their activities or allow the organization to use parish sites," the note advocates. TCCB points to TRL's implication that bishop-supported end-of-life care legislation allowed "euthanasia and death panels," and cites TRL's rejection of "incremental pro-life reform" and the group's accusation that the bishops are "not faithfully" representing the church's teachings. The TCCB also took aim at TRL's strongly influential legislative voter guide and "scorecard" – grades assigned to the most "pro-life" (aka anti-abortion) legislators – for not backing lawmakers who have "consistently voted for pro-life and end of life legislation." They write that the publication is not based on a fair analysis of a legislator's work, but "rather upon whether the legislator has followed voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life." As the most prominent anti-choice group in Texas, TRL often assumes credit for the state's major laws restricting abortion. A boycott from the TCCB represents a significant slap in the face.

Jim and Elizabeth Graham of Texas Right to Life

TRL's Legislative Agenda

TRL, headed by Jim and Elizabeth Gra­ham, is the Texas affiliate of the Nation­al Right to Life Committee. And indeed, its political arm opposed several incumbent House Republicans in the March primary, despite the fact they earned perfect scores from the organization for their abortion-related legislative activity, including Reps. Chris Paddie, Giovanni Cap­ri­g­lione, and Wayne Faircloth – all of whom nabbed TRL endorsements in 2016 – as well as Sen. Craig Estes and Rep. Dan Flynn. The day after primary elections, the group issued a statement praising Edgewood Repub­lican Sen. Bob Hall's win against Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, calling her "a moderate from Straus' leadership circle, who was sent to infiltrate Dan Patrick's conservative chamber," and a "RINO with a history of subverting the pro-life movement."

To categorize Burkett as a "moderate" on the topic of abortion is nothing short of laughable: Burkett was one of the lead authors of 2013's House Bill 2, the draconian anti-choice package law eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, and she sponsored the sweeping abortion-restrictive omnibus SB 8 in the House this past session. But she's just one of many ardent anti-choice lawmakers who are seen as too milquetoast for the zealous group.

TRL has since shot back, accusing the TCCB of playing politics in a brazen statement that focused on their own political motives. "One of the goals of this upcoming Republican primary election is to defeat a few more of the liberal House leadership and those with ties to the Austin establishment," they wrote. "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. 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."

This wouldn't be the first time the two groups have butted heads; the Catholic organization has dinged TRL in the past for misleading voters with their legislative scorecards. But last month's advisory marked the first time the TCCB has drawn a public line in the sand, cracking open the many fissures within the powerful anti-choice movement in Texas. The rift isn't just a disagreement between two like-minded parties; rather it's emblematic of a wider division between the growing extremism of far-right Republicans in the state Legis­lat­ure and their comparatively moderate counterparts, and it was a battle on full display during the 2017 session. The intra-movement conflict reflects the power struggle that exploded between House Speaker Joe Straus, his supposed acolytes, and the ultra-right Freedom Caucus, a group hellbent on shifting the Legislature further right.

A War Within the Movement

It's not a stretch to imagine Kyleen Wright's anti-choice organization Texans for Life Coalition relishing the Catholic rebuke: Wright says her group, founded in 1974, has spent years being "maligned and slandered" and "maliciously attacked" by TRL. After facing such pushback following last year's regular session, she hit TRL for "scamming" voters and making "false and misleading" statements by criticizing anti-choice bills other groups in the movement have supported as ineffective, nonpriority, and detrimental. "It is exceedingly rare for Texans for Life to call out a fellow pro-life group, testify against other group's pro-life bills or attack them publicly, but enough is enough," she wrote.

Wright told me she's historically been reticent to talk to the media about TRL, but that events surrounding the recent election cycle, including the group's vilification of Republican lawmakers, have pushed her to speak out. "Some of these attacks on legislators are below the belt," said Wright. "It's very difficult to have to apologize for another pro-life group. And it's getting difficult to recruit bill authors when members could be taking friendly fire from our side than from the other side – it's a real risk to our whole movement."

One of those legislators whom TRL has recently turned against is anti-choice conservative Rep. Paul Workman in District 47, opting instead for far-right candidate (and former Austin City Council hopeful) Jay Wiley, even though the group gave Workman a 90% score in the most recent legislative session, 100% in the 84th and 82nd, and an endorsement in 2016. Hardly a pro-choice stalwart, Workman lent his support to HB 2, the pre-abortion sonogram law, and additional burdens for minors seeking abortion. Workman confided to me last month: "Texas Right to Life has kinda lost their way and it's unfortunate that they're not doing what they started out to do."

Kyleen Wright
“It is exceedingly rare for Texans for Life to call out a fellow pro-life group ... or attack them publicly, but enough is enough.” – Kyleen Wright, Texans for Life Coalition

Wright's chasm with TRL started in 2009 when she publicly supported Joe Straus. The rift grew in the 2013 session when TRL invited Wright to an intimate luncheon with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum as he was preparing to run for president. There was a call for unity between the anti-choice groups, but soon after TRL began aggressively targeting GOP members and Wright got busy defending them, a task she doubled down on during the 2017 session and 2018 primaries. "They want to be large and in charge," she said of TRL. "I can't help but believe money and power are drivers." Through social media and private emails, Wright says TRL and their allies are "waging war" against the Catholic bishops and a third group, the Austin-based Texas Alliance for Life.

Indeed, the most pronounced rivalry in Texas' anti-choice movement today is likely between TRL and the TAL, who have long butted heads in public places. The two groups could not be more disparate in their messaging or presentation. If TAL is your mild-mannered but staunchly anti-choice Christian radio station catering to one small community, then TRL is Rush Limbaugh – more money, more influence, with any sense of moderation thrown out the window.

Joe Pojman, who heads the TAL, says tensions between the two groups date back years, culminating in a "very bitter disagreement" in 2013 over end-of-life care, a policy both groups spend time focusing on when not lobbying for anti-choice bills. Of course, the groups share a central mission of advancing legislation that limits or ends abortion, but even with that shared anti-choice goal in a deeply red state, they've found reason to diverge. The difference largely lies in TRL's opposition of any exceptions, however narrow, to abortion care, and TAL's aversion to laws that are likely to be struck down by the courts.

The groups' divisions grew during the 2017 session: While TRL adamantly supported a ban on dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortion, performed in the second trimester, TAL labeled the bill "reckless" because it wouldn't stand constitutional muster. (Indeed, U.S. Federal Judge Lee Yeakel ruled against the law in November, calling it an unconstitutional "undue burden" on Texas women.) An even less humane amendment by Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, attached to package anti-choice law SB 8 would have removed an exception to the state's 20-week abortion ban that allows the procedure when the fetus has a severe abnormality (which could mean a stillbirth). TRL supported the measure while Pojman's group didn't, due again to its low likelihood of passing through the courts. The amendment proved too radical even for conservative politicians and failed to pass. Repub­lic­an Burkett said the amendment "goes one step too far" while Rep. Byron Cook, R-Cor­si­cana, urged colleagues to vote against the proposal, saying it shows we are "willing to play God with people's lives." Both candidates were torched by TRL.

"I don't think [TRL's] legislative initiatives are well-founded in strategy," said Pojman. "We think it's counterproductive to try and pass bills that aren't likely to survive a court challenge. If we lose, the state is obligated to pay attorney's fees which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Legislators need to be cognizant of those consequences."

While Pojman refrains from any direct ad hominem attacks, the same can't be said for Texas Right to Life. In February, Jim Gra­ham slammed both TAL and Wright's group as "fake" pro-life organizations; alluded to them as "small, poser, wannabe organizations"; and slapped Pojman with the moniker "Joe Poison." (Graham and TRL did not respond to requests for comment.) It wasn't always name-calling and drama; in fact, Pojman sat on TRL's board from 1988 to 2002. Coupled with "differences of opinion about strategy," he left after a board request for financials and an audit went unanswered. Pojman said he hasn't received an email from TRL in more than a year – the last one in his inbox was a request to be removed from his newsletter list.

Empowered Puppets

Both Wright and Pojman connect TRL's rising petulance to its affiliation with Empow­er Texans, a well-funded Austin-based tea party group that ostensibly advocates for fiscal conservatism. Historically mired in a battle with the Texas Ethics Com­mis­sion, the "dark money" group seems to be constantly on either end of an ethics complaint. The Travis County District Attor­ney's Office is currently reviewing an Empow­er mailer against GOP Rep. Charlie Geren from the "Texas Ethics Disclosure Board" – not an actual state agency – after a complaint accusing the ad of too closely resembling an official government document, a possible violation of state law.

Joe Pojman (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Headed by power-hungry Michael Quinn Sullivan, Empower ruthlessly targets those whom they consider moderate Republicans, and have aggressively led the fight against House Speaker Joe Straus, along with other lawmakers they perceive as not being radical enough, including State Affairs Com­mit­tee Chair Byron Cook. Straus and Cook, under heat during the 2017 session from the far-right, announced their resignations last year, which both Empower and TRL publicly celebrated, despite the fact Cook and Straus have happily ushered in several draconian anti-choice bills, including HB 2. In an online radio show reminiscent of Glenn Beck, Gra­ham and Sullivan teamed up to sound off on "RINO" legislators with some scathing words of choice. Graham even went so far as to call the Jewish speaker "Herr Straus."

Pojman says TRL's opposition to lawmakers is based on pure politics, "intellectually dishonest," and a "flagrant" disregard of its supposed mission. "The demise of Joe Straus was put above every policy priority Texas Right to Life had," he said. "And that's unfortunate because Straus was certainly beneficial to the pro-life cause. [TRL] is supposed to be a nonpartisan pro-life organization but they've made a marriage with a non-pro-life economic conservative group. I think that's where a lot of this problem is coming from."

It's not just TRL's attacks on legislators that echo that of Empower. In return, Empow­er has gone after groups in the anti-choice movement like Texas Alliance for Life with little restraint. Sullivan has called Pojman's group the "Fake Alliance for Joe Straus' Version of Killing Babies" and "Texas Alliance for Lies," claiming Pojman is a "sellout" to Straus. The group's blog also targets Wright's organization, which they say "seems to exist solely to give cover to liberal Republican politicians who are weak on life issues."

A look into their financials shows that both groups enjoy similar mega-donor funders and, as a result, similar priorities: Empower is largely funded by sizable donations from billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, who made their fortune from the West Texas fracking boom, and Midland oilman Tim Dunn. The Wilkses donated a combined $1.25 million to the Empower PAC, while Dunn has given more than a million, according to Texas Ethics Com­mis­sion reports. The Wilks brothers also gave a combined $1.25 million to the Texas Right to Life PAC while Dunn chipped in $100,000, according to the group's February campaign finance report. "Clearly a lot of money, a lot of dark money, has entered the picture from people who previously were not concerned about social issues," said Wright, "and so it's been unfortunate to watch [TRL] kind of join up forces and forget their first love, so to speak."

A promo still from the online radio show hosted by Jim Graham and Michael Quinn Sullivan

Dunn has made it a mission to unseat Straus, while the Wilks brothers, who made headlines for throwing $15 million to Sen. Ted Cruz in 2015, similarly support far-right Koch brothers-linked causes and candidates, including TRL enemy Burkett's incumbent primary challenger, and such members of the tea party-linked Freedom Caucus as Reps. Jonathan Stickland, Matt Rin­aldi, and of course Tony Tinderholt, who filed a bill to completely outlaw abortion. Likely not a coincidence, TRL refrained from opposing any challengers to Freedom Caucus members during its $1.1 million primary election spending and has likened the Caucus' fanatical members to "outspoken heroes."

Using Empower and TRL as vessels for their bidding, the Wilks brothers seem to want the House to function like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's Senate – akin to a radical theocracy. The media-shy yet powerful Wilkses ascribe to the idea the Bible (correct in every historical and scientific detail) should be taught in public schools; that homosexuality is "a serious crime"; and that abortion is murder, including for pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, according to a 2014 article in the American Prospect. At their Texas church founded by their father (of which Farris is a pastor), women are barred from speaking during worship.

A Battle of the Extremes

Make no mistake, TAL, TRL, and TLC are each rabidly anti-choice and would prefer a world in which abortion is no longer accessible. They've each worked successfully to ensure that becomes the reality for Texas women, resulting in a broken and dangerous landscape not just for abortion care, but for women's health care in general. Thanks to their activism and political influence, the number of abortion clinics has been sliced in half and lifesaving and preventive health programs have suffered drastic drops in patient care. Religious freedom watchdogs at the Texas Free­dom Network caution that it would be "very misleading" for anyone to suggest that one group is any more moderate than the other. (An important reminder that the enemy of our enemy is not always our friend.)

"The truth is Texas Alliance for Life and Texas Right to Life are both extremist organizations dedicated to the same extreme goal," said TFN's Dan Quinn, "taking away the freedom of individuals to decide for themselves what health care services, including abortion, they want and will get.

"Their fight is over the tactics and politics of reaching that goal. That the fight has evolved into open, scorched-earth warfare says a lot about the state of politics on the right in Texas today. There are few things more fascinating, and depressing, than watching extremists fight over who can be the most dogmatic and cruel."

The Name Game: Who's Who in Anti-Choice

Texas Right to Life: Houston-based nonprofit led by Jim and Elizabeth Graham. Claims to be the "oldest and largest" anti-abortion organization in Texas, and also nonpartisan. Aligns with conservative group Empower Texans, and likely to support anti-choice bills without exception. Against House Speaker Joe Straus and many moderate Republicans; favors far-right members of Freedom Caucus.

Texas Alliance for Life: Austin-based nonprofit headed by Joe Pojman. More likely to support narrow exceptions for anti-choice bills and less likely to support bills that won't survive legal challenges. Supportive of House Speaker Joe Straus, less so of Freedom Caucus.

Texans for Life Coalition: Arlington-based nonprofit headed by Kyleen Wright, an anti-choice advocate of more than 30 years. Supportive of Joe Straus.

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Texas Alliance for Life, Texas Right to Life, Texans for Life Coalition, Jim Graham, Elizabeth Graham, Kyleen Wright, Joe Pojman

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