Dallas Congregation Supports People Seeking Abortions

Dallas Congregation Supports People Seeking Abortions

Unitarian Universalists offer pastoral care to travelers to New Mexico.


When Lisa Simmons learned in October that she was pregnant, she immediately wanted to end the pregnancy. The 33-year-old Dallas resident already struggles with the three children she has, she told UU World, adding that this new pregnancy “was an accident.” Four or five weeks pregnant, Lisa—whose real name has been withheld for this article—didn’t want much time to pass before having an abortion. But in post-Roe v. Wade Texas, that would be a challenge.

Fifty years after Roe established the right to abortion in the United States, the procedure is again illegal in Texas and over a dozen other states since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization in June 2022.

Since January, First Unitarian Church of Dallas has supported pregnant people seeking safe, legal abortions in New Mexico. Thirty-plus volunteers have joined an effort by the church’s senior minister, the Rev. Dr. Daniel Kanter, to fly pregnant people to Albuquerque. The flights, support, and procedures they receive at Albuquerque’s Southwestern Women’s Options clinic are funded by the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).

A history of support and activism

After the 1973 Roe ruling, the congregation’s pro-choice work waned—until new attacks on reproductive rights resurrected its activism.

This new effort follows the church’s longstanding pro-choice legacy, which began with a 1968 UUA General Assembly resolution and includes ties to Roe v. Wade.

The Dallas congregation originally helped pregnant people seeking abortions in the 1960s by referring them to a doctor in East Texas who performed the illegal procedures safely, says Mary Lou Hoffman, a First Church women’s alliance member since 1964. After a resolution at the UUA General Assembly in 1968 encouraged UUs to support expansion of abortion rights, leaders of the Dallas women’s alliance held a study group on abortion, where presenters included Linda Coffee, one of the lawyers who would argue Roe v. Wade.

The UU women also traveled to Austin with the congregation’s then-minister, the Rev. Dr. Dwight Brown, to advocate for a more permissive Texas abortion law. After receiving a $1,000 donation, alliance members helped fund a lawsuit against Texas’s restrictive abortion law and filed an amicus brief in Roe.Yet, “For the most part, our part in Roe v. Wade has been unknown,” Hoffman says.

After the 1973 Roe ruling, the congregation’s pro-choice work waned—until new attacks on reproductive rights resurrected its activism.

The congregation’s work began in earnest about seven years ago, when Kanter agreed to volunteer as a chaplain at Southwestern Women’s Center in Dallas. Along with the Center’s co-owner, Dr. Curtis Boyd—an ordained Baptist minister and medical doctor who attended First Unitarian Church in the early 1960s—he created a multifaith chaplaincy program to provide a pastoral presence to patients deciding how to handle their pregnancies.

Responding to current abortion restrictions

In September 2021, Texas Senate Bill 8 (SB8) took effect, banning abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and allowing private lawsuits against those providing, aiding, or abetting an abortion after that point, unless it is determined to be medically necessary. Southwestern Women’s Center went from 100 patients a day to thirty, Kanter says.

But Boyd also had a clinic in Albuquerque, Southwestern Women’s Options, where abortion is legal and unrestricted. Kanter and Boyd coordinated with New Mexico RCRC, with whom Boyd has long partnered. The organization is a member of both RCRC’s affiliate network and the National Network of Abortion Funds.

Test runs began in December 2021, and the organizers eventually settled on flying twenty pregnant people, known as travelers, to Albuquerque every other week. In January 2022, First Church began its support. About eight volunteers met at the church on the day of a flight by around 5 a.m., when the travelers would arrive and be provided with breakfast, says First Church member Peg Cronin, who coordinated the volunteers. After the trip to Albuquerque for the procedure, the travelers returned to Dallas that evening.

Access to abortion is an equity issue, activists say. New Mexico RCRC Executive Director Joan Lamunyon Sanford says limited abortion access has always disproportionately affected Black and Indigenous people, people of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. “We saw that long before Dobbs,” she says. “That’s always been the case.”

It also more severely affects people with limited financial means. A 2014 report by the Guttmacher Institute found that 49 percent of abortion patients in the United States were living below the federal poverty level and another 26 percent were classified as being from low-income households. For that reason, Southwestern Women’s Options in Dallas screened people for the program, and only those below the poverty line qualified.

In June 2022, the Texas trigger law criminalized all abortion in Texas with minimal exceptions to save a pregnant person’s life, and anyone who helps a person access an abortion—even an out-of-state procedure—can be arrested. The Center for Reproductive Rights advised organizers to stop transporting travelers. The last group of travelers flew on July 8.

“We really did have to stop once the Dobbs case was decided,” Kanter adds. “And then it took a little while for us to figure out how to do this legally again.” 

“As people of faith, we must counter the narrative that says people of faith are anti-abortion, and UUs have done that well,” Kanter adds.

The program resumed in October 2022, this time under the management of a coordinator. Now, ten people fly to New Mexico each week, Lamunyon Sanford says. Simmons was among them. Within days of learning she was pregnant, Simmons contacted a friend who had an abortion earlier that year. She recommended the travelers’ program and gave Simmons a phone number. Simmons was skeptical but trusted her friend’s recommendation enough to meet the group early one November morning. Later that day, her pregnancy ended safely and legally at an Albuquerque clinic and by evening she was home with her kids. Like her friend before her, “I would definitely share this number,” Simmons says.

How much New Mexico RCRC can increase its capacity will depend on things like funding and the connections it can make in Texas to ensure people know the service exists, Lamunyon Sanford adds. Today, New Mexico RCRC has taken over all logistics, including screening the travelers. First Church’s current involvement remains undisclosed.

“We’re not breaking any laws,” Kanter explains. “What we are doing is providing care and support in real ways via the chaplains. But no arrangements are being made by us or via anyone on this side of the border.”

Kanter hopes that his congregation can be a model, and he encourages Unitarian Universalist congregations throughout the country to help people access safe abortions. Those in “high-access states” such as New York and New Mexico can receive and support patients traveling from out of state, while in “low-access” states such as Texas and Arkansas, “clergy are in a certain position to create networks like we’ve created in collaboration with any of the clinics that remain open,” Kanter says. 

“As people of faith, we must counter the narrative that says people of faith are anti-abortion, and UUs have done that well,” Kanter adds. “And now it’s time again to do it in effective and loud and proud ways.”