Pro-life activists found guilty of obstructing abortion clinic access in DC

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Five pro-life advocates who entered a Washington, D.C., abortion facility as part of a “rescue” in October 2020 were convicted of felony charges Tuesday afternoon, a ruling that at least one activist plans to appeal.

All five defendants, including 28-year-old Director of Activism for the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) Lauren Handy, were convicted of felony conspiracy against rights and felony violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. Each person could face up to 11 years in prison and a fine up to $350,000.

The FACE Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It prohibits individuals from accosting or obstructing women seeking abortions at abortion clinics as well as the destruction or defacement of abortion clinics themselves.

In addition to Handy, 67-year-old John Hinshaw, 61-year-old Heather Idoni, 52-year-old William Goodman, and 25-year-old Herb Geraghty were convicted.

The Department of Justice claims the activists engaged in a conspiracy to create a blockade at the Cesare Santangelo abortion facility and prevent the clinic from offering services. A news release from the DOJ stated that the activists used “physical obstruction to injure, intimidate, and interfere with the clinic’s employees and a patient because they were providing or obtaining reproductive health services.”

According to the DOJ, four of the five activists who were convicted, along with others, “forcefully entered the clinic and set about blockading two clinic doors using their bodies, furniture, chains, and ropes.” The news release added that the activities were livestreamed.

Handy, who organized the demonstration, testified in court that she viewed an undercover video of the facility released by the pro-life group Live Action that she believed showed abortionists refusing to offer care to a child who survived an abortion attempt. Her lawyers argued that Handy was not trying to halt reproductive health care but was instead motivated by her belief that illegal activities were taking place at the facility.

All five defendants were immediately incarcerated, though sentencing has yet to take place.

“In an unexpected twist, the court found that because the violation of FACE — in this case — was a crime of ‘violence,’ all five defendants must be immediately incarcerated,” Steve Crampton, a senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, a Catholic law firm, said in a statement.

The defendants “were led out of the courtroom by an army of U.S. Marshals,” Crampton said. “This is an outrage, and the one thing the defendants had really agreed upon was to remain nonviolent. The real violence is what happens during the abortion procedure.”

The Thomas More Society is representing Handy in the criminal case. Another lawyer from the Thomas More Society, Martin Cannon, said in a statement that they plan to appeal her conviction.

“We are, of course, disappointed with the outcome,” Cannon said. “Ms. Handy has been condemned for her efforts to protect the lives of innocent preborn human beings. We are preparing an appeal and will continue to defend those who fight for life against a Biden Department of Justice that seems intent on prosecuting those who decry abortion and present it as it is — the intentional killing of children in utero.”

Pro-life leaders react to verdict

PAAU founder Terrisa Bukovinac said in a post on X (formerly Twitter) that the conviction means “that in America it is illegal to peacefully and nonviolently protest infanticide.” 

“These rescuers were protecting babies born alive and killed by notorious abortionist Cesare Santangelo ... But Biden’s feds didn’t come for the violent criminal,” Bukovinac said. “No, they came for nonviolent peaceful activists because our commitment to both nonviolence and civil disobedience is what makes us grow.”

Bernadette Patel, a pro-life activist who knows several of the defendants, told CNA that the convictions are “an egregious error on the part of the justice system.”

“[The judge] completely stacked the jury pool with members who described themselves as ‘pro-choice’ and admitted that they marched for abortion as well as donated to Planned Parenthood,” Patel said. 

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“Her demeanor was cold and bitter toward the defense and court transcripts will show that she acted as another prosecutor in the case. We hope that when the appeal goes through we can finally get some justice; however, that process is slow and not reliable.”

Patel said the Biden administration’s Department of Justice will “stop at nothing to prosecute civilians engaged in peaceful, protected civil disobedience.”

Michael New, a pro-life activist in the Washington, D.C., area, urged people to pray for the five individuals found guilty.

“The D.C. pro-life rescuers … have all been taken into federal custody,” New said in a post on X. “They will be in jail until they are sentenced. I am not a legal expert, but I am told this is unprecedented in the history of rescue.”

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America also issued a statement critical of the decision, saying the five activists should be “recognized for their heroism” and accused the Biden administration of weaponizing “the full power of the federal government against them.”

“They have done a vital public service in exposing the horrors of late-term abortion taking place in D.C., where there are no limits on abortion up to birth, and across the country,” the statement read. “They have kept the memory of abortionist Cesare Santangelo’s victims alive, including five fully developed babies that were likely killed in illegal partial-birth abortions or delivered alive and left to die, then placed in a box and headed for the incinerator as ‘medical waste.’”

Lila Rose, the president of Live Action, said in a statement the trial was a “sham with a completely biased pro-abortion judge who has made a mockery of our justice system.”

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“Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly refused to admit into evidence the Live Action investigation video showing the abortionist Cesare Santangelo, in his own words, stating his willingness to let a living child outside of the womb die from neglect and lack of medical attention,” Rose said.

“This is also the same judge who recently suggested that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution’s ban on ‘involuntary servitude’ may confer a right to abortion, comparing the beauty of pregnancy and motherhood with the horror of slavery,” Rose continued.

“I stand with these activists who have been unjustly convicted and demand authentic justice for these advocates working to end the barbaric killing of abortion.”

Five other individuals were charged in relation to the October 2020 events at the Cesare Santangelo abortion facility. One, 32-year-old Jay Smith, has already pleaded guilty. The other four will stand trial beginning next Wednesday, Sept. 6: 74-year-old Joan Bell, 73-year-old Paulette Harlow, 72-year-old Jean Marshall, and 40-year-old Jonathan Darnel.

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