On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion that declared abortion was a constitutional right. The Texas legislature has traditionally opposed most abortions and the Court’s overturning of Roe has led to debates over abortion and public policy in Texas. In El Paso the abortion debate intensified when mayor Oscar Leeser voted down a council resolution deprioritizing criminal investigations into abortion. El Paso city council has no authority over abortion laws but can task the El Paso Police Department not to expend resources in prosecuting abortion law violations.

Leeser cast the tie breaking vote on the proposal introduced by Alexsandra Annello and Henry Rivera. They were joined by Cassandra Hernandez and Peter Svarzbein. Voting against deprioritizing investigations of abortion were Joe Molinar, Cissy Lizarraga, Claudia Rodriguez and Isabel Salcido. Because of the tie vote, Leeser voted against the measure arguing that city council should not trump federal and state laws. The measure was precipitated by the demise of Roe.

Abortion has been a dividing issue in El Paso pitting the city’s Democrats against the conservative religious doctrine of the Catholic Church. Both the Church and the Democratic Party heavily influence El Paso’s public policy. However, abortion as public policy, has seldom been voted on at city council. Other than making resolutions in favor or in opposition, local government has little authority over the issue of abortion as public policy.

Deprioritizing prosecutions of violations of abortion laws is one way the local government can influence abortion public policy. It failed when Leeser voted against Annello’s and Rivera’s referendum. Prior to the latest controversy at city council there was another abortion controversy at city council in 1981. Unlike the current controversy, no one knows what city council voted on in 1981.

The 1981 City Council Controversy

In 1981, four city representatives agreed to proclaim “El Paso Right to Life Day” for January 23, 1982. The proclamation was proposed by Keith Galbraith who was chairman of the El Pasoans For Life. His group argued that “more than 6,000 El Paso babies” were “killed by abortion each year.” The city council’s vote on October 13, 1981, was controversial because no one knew what was ultimately voted on – was it a proclamation or was it a resolution remained unanswered. According to then city representative Pat Haggerty, city council did not vote on proclamations. Adding to the turmoil was that then-mayor Jonathan Rogers had left the city council chambers. Rogers told the El Paso Times that the vote did not count because he had adjourned the meeting before the vote was taken. [1]

Four city representatives were left when Rogers “abruptly” left the city council chambers with then-city representatives Jim Scherr and Dennis Wagner as Galbraith began to speak. Rogers told those in attendance that he supported the separation of church and state and that the issue of abortion was “more of personal issue than a political one.” [2]

During his election for mayor, Rogers had sent a letter to Galbraith, which Galbraith read during the meeting. In the letter, according to Galbraith, Rogers had written that he supported several “proposed abortion regulations ‘as good public policy’.” It is Galbraith’s reading of Roger’s campaign letter that precipitated Rogers to adjourn the meeting and walk out. [3]

The four remaining city representatives – Joe Divis, David Escobar, Orlando Fonseca and Pat Haggerty voted on Galbraith’s request but at the end of the meeting could not agree on whether they voted on a proclamation or a resolution. [4] Ultimately the action taken by city council on that date remained unenforceable. City clerk Bill Rieger said the vote taken by council was invalid because the council lacked a quorum when Pat Haggerty left the room. Although both Escobar and Fonseca claimed that the resolution proclaiming each Saturday after January 22 each year as “the day for remembrance of the unborn child” was adopted, Divis told the newspaper he didn’t “specifically remember a vote”. [5] Ultimately the lack of quorum voided the vote.

According to public records, Keith Galbraith operated the non-profit, Vida Ministries, Inc. between 1978 and 1994 when the corporation was forfeited due to tax problems. Galbraith was a former filmmaker before advocating for anti-abortion measures. [6] Galbraith was the defacto voice of the anti-abortion movement in El Paso.

The Church

The El Paso Catholic Church has always been opposed to abortion. The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion on Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973, in a 7-2 decision. Then Catholic Bishop Sidney Metzger stated that the Court’s decision was a “tragedy” for the country. Metzger went on to add that the decision was a “monstrous injustice to the thousands of unborn whose lives may be destroyed” because of it. [7]

Before becoming the second bishop of El Paso, Metzger had threatened an 11-year-old El Paso sexual abuse victim and his mother with “going to hell” for making sexual assault allegations against a priest who was a friend of Metzger’s. The sexual assault victim was victimized by three El Paso Catholic priests.

Raymundo Peña, the third bishop of El Paso, also became politically involved in the abortion issue in El Paso. The Catholic Church had not generally led the anti-abortion movement in El Paso, preferring instead to let Galbraith run the public debate. However, that was not the case in 1981 when the city council controversy erupted. Peña asked El Paso Catholics to withhold all donations to the United Way because it funded Planned Parenthood. Peña called Planned Parenthood “an abortion advocacy agency.” The boycott against Planned Parenthood was led by Galbraith. [8] It was supported at the pulpit by Peña.

By October of 1986, the boycott of United Way over the abortion issue had become the city’s public policy issue. Then city representatives Joe Divis, David Escobar and Orlando Fonseca were publicly supporting the boycott. [9] When the El Paso Times asked Ron Toth, the then-director of the Planned Parenthood Center of El Paso to comment on the position the elected officials had taken on the United Way controversy, Toth responded that “he did not know who Escobar, Fonseca or Divis” were nor “did he know what an alderman was.” City representatives were called alderman in 1981. Among the supporters of the boycott in 1981 was then El Paso County Democrat Party Chairman Joe Mendoza. [10]

The boycott of United Way to punish Planned Parenthood became the city’s top issue in 1981. El Paso’s philanthropy was being threatened because of the abortion issue. United Way was the gateway for philanthropic monies to many non-profits and that money flow was being threatened by one issue and one entity. The issue was abortion, and the entity was Planned Parenthood. Politically it was and is a hot political issue few politicians want to deal with. Orlando Fonseca was forced to face the threat of a recall because of the issue. However, Fonseca was not deterred. He continued to work with Galbraith.

In mid-1987, Fonseca, then a county commissioner, attempted to name Galbraith to Thomason’s hospital board. Today, Thomason is better known as the University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC). Fonseca’s motion on June 1, 1987, to approve Galbraith to the hospital board was not approved after Fonseca was unable to muster a second on his motion. [11] But the abortion issue continued to be a political problem for the politicians.

Local Government Takes On Abortion

Keith Galbraith’s loss in October of 1981 was not the end of the then-city council’s abortion debacle. Before the 1986 boycott of United Way by Keith’s group, they tried to have city council approve three resolutions related to abortion. On October 20, 1981, city council was told by Galbraith’s group to expect three resolutions intended to regulate abortion at the municipal level. The three proposed resolutions called for rules on the disposal of fetal remains, prohibiting abortions on minors and making informed consent mandatory in the city. The group’s version of informed consent required informing women about the abortion process and its associated risks. If adopted, the resolution called for a mandatory waiting period between the information and the procedure. Opposing Galbraith’s group were the El Paso Women’s Political Caucus and the El Paso Coalition for Choice. Nancy Kohutek represented both groups in opposition to restrictive local abortion legislation. [12]

Although the anti-abortion movement remained heated in El Paso, politically it was mostly ignored. The issue does not seem to appear again before city hall for some time. Keith Galbraith, who founded the lead anti-abortion group in El Paso, El Pasoans for Life, in 1980 left El Paso sometime in 1989. [13]

An Unwinnable Issue

Several former and current politicians we spoke to recently agreed that the abortion issue is unwinnable in El Paso. All of them were hesitant to express their opinion on the issue unless we agreed to use their observations as background only without naming them by name. The common thread is that publicly taking a position on the issue is political “suicide” as one individual told us.

On July 13, Gilberto Hinojosa, the chair of the Texas Democratic Party sent a letter to Oscar Leeser rescinding his support of Lesser. Hinojosa wrote in his letter to that Leeser was asked to “decide whether law enforcement resources” should be “used to prosecute a woman who decides for whatever reason” to have an abortion. Hinojosa added that Leeser “was not asked to express” his “personal opinion” on abortion.

Martín Paredes became a partner of Politico Campaigns, a political campaign management firm, in June 2022. The views and opinion expressed in our publication are those of Paredes and do not necessarily represent the views of the firm or its other partners. El Paso News is funded primarily by Paredes, in part by donations from readers and online advertisement. Politico Campaigns plays no role in our reporting. El Paso News has an open editorial policy encouraging any author to submit any article from any point of view for consideration to be published on El Paso News.

Footnotes:

  1. Gary Scharrer, “Mayor’s walkout confuses anti-abortion vote,” El Paso Times, October 14, 1981, 8.
  2. Scharrer, “Mayor’s walkout confuses,” 8.
  3. Scharrer, “Mayor’s walkout confuses,” 8.
  4. Scharrer, “Mayor’s walkout confuses,” 8.
  5. “City clerk calls ‘unborn child’ resolution invalid,” El Paso Herald Post, October 14, 1981, 13.
  6. Peter Brock, “Catholics, Protestants fight ‘pornographic’ films,” El Paso Herald Post, April 19, 1980, 6.
  7. “EP Bishop speaks Out On Abortion,” El Paso Times, January 31, 1973, 25.
  8. Patricia Lochbaum and Betty Pierce, “Bishop backs boycott,” El Paso Herald Post, September 16, 1981, 1.
  9. Gary Scharrer and Molly Fennell, “United Way boycott gains 3 aldermen,” El Paso Times, October 9, 1981, 1.
  10. Scharrer, “United Way boycott,” 2.
  11. Ken Baake, “Pastor denied spot on hospital board,” El Paso Herald Post, June 1, 1987, 7.
  12. Gary Scharrer, “Abortion issue seen but not heard by city,” El Paso Times, October 21, 1981, 3.
  13. Vic Kolenc, “New anti-abortion leader is ready for state fight,” El Paso Herald Post, July 28, 1989, 2.

Martin Paredes

Reporting on public corruption, border politics, immigration and public policy in El Paso since 2000.