Elderly pro-life activist with ‘significant medical issues’ convicted on FACE Act charge

DC babies Washington Surgi-Clinic on F St. NW in Washington, D.C. on April 7, 2022. | Credit: Katie Yoder/CNA

An elderly woman could face up to 11 years in prison after she was found guilty Thursday of participating in a pro-life blockade of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic in 2020.

Paulette Harlow of Kingston, Massachusetts, 75, was convicted of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and was found guilty of conspiracy against rights. She and nine other pro-life activists have been charged with crimes related to the Oct. 22, 2020, sit-in in which they blocked access to the clinic’s abortion services, according to prosecutors.

Harlow suffers from significant health issues and was not immediately detained following her guilty verdict in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The FACE Act prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.” It is the same law that pro-life father of seven Mark Houck was charged and acquitted under earlier this year.

Passed in 1993, the FACE Act was written to prosecute crimes at both abortion clinics and pro-life pregnancy facilities. Despite its broad areas of protection, it has been used almost exclusively against pro-life activists.

Because of Harlow’s health issues, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who presided over the bench trial, allowed her to remain under house arrest until her sentencing hearing on March 19, 2024, Allen Orenberg, her defense attorney, told CNA on Thursday.

The penalties for her conviction could land her with a sentence of a maximum of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000.

Although the nine other pro-life activists are currently either serving time or awaiting their sentences, Orenberg said, “I’m optimistic that the judge will fashion a sentence of home detention.” 

“Mrs. Harlow has some significant medical issues that need to be addressed on a regular basis. And the judge said on the record that this will allow her to see her doctors rather than having to deal with the Bureau of Prisons at this stage where the level or the quality of medical care may not be the same,” he said.

CNA inquired about Harlow’s health issues, but Orenberg declined to comment to protect her privacy.

During the blockade of the clinic, which was livestreamed on Facebook, some of those who sat inside the clinic can be seen praying the rosary and singing hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary while refusing to leave.

“Pro-life rescuers are entering the doors of an abortion clinic and saving babies from death. This is very risky for the rescuers, but it’s about time we got serious about ending abortion again,” a description of the video reads.

The video of the protest is below.

In a press release Thursday, the Department of Justice said that evidence during the trial showed that the protesters “used social media, text messages, and telephone calls to organize the blockade, and several defendants traveled from northeast and midwestern states to participate in the clinic invasion.”

Before the protest, the defendants “met with other co-conspirators to formulate their tactics, which included making a fake patient appointment to ensure the group’s entry into the clinic, using chains and locks to barricade the facility, and passively resisting arrest to prolong the obstruction.”

“At the outset of the invasion, the defendants forced their way into the clinic, injuring a clinic nurse. The blockade forced one patient to climb through a receptionist window to access the clinic, while another was denied entry as she lay in physical distress in the hallway outside the clinic,” the DOJ said.

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The judgment and verdict document says that per the FACE Act count, “the court further finds that defendant Paula ‘Paulette’ Harlow intentionally injured, intimidated, and interfered with Patient A and clinic employees through force and physical obstruction.”

Patient A refers to an individual who was “seeking to obtain reproductive health services” at the clinic on the day of the protest.

Orenberg told CNA that “Mrs. Harlow is very pleased that the judge agreed to let her remain on her conditions of release pending sentencing.”

The Washington Surgi-Clinic is operated by Dr. Cesare Santangelo, an abortion doctor who was secretly recorded by the pro-life group Live Action in 2019, during which he said that he would allow a child who survived an abortion attempt to die if the child was born during the procedure. 

In April 2022, about two years after the protest, the group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), a secular organization that demonstrates against abortion, said that it obtained 115 aborted babies from a medical waste driver who was leaving Santangelo’s clinic. 

PAAU, several lawmakers, and dozens of pro-life activists have pointed out that five of those aborted babies appeared exceptionally developed and have called for an investigation into whether federal abortion law was violated by the clinic, particularly the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

In September some of the other protesters, Jonathan Darnel of Arlington, Virginia; Jean Marshall of Kingston, Massachusetts; and Joan Bell of Montague, New Jersey, were convicted under the same charges as Harlow and are currently detained awaiting sentencing. 

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Darnel told CNA the night before his sentencing that “FACE is a crime, but it shouldn’t be a crime because abortion shouldn’t be tolerated.”

“It’s an honor to be taken like so many others,” he added.

In August, Lauren Handy of Alexandria, Virginia; John Hinshaw of Levittown, New York; Heather Idoni of Linden, Michigan; William Goodman of Bronx, New York; and Herb Geraghty of Pittsburgh were also convicted under the same charges and are awaiting sentencing.

Jay Smith of Freeport, New York, who also participated in the protest, pleaded guilty to a felony FACE Act charge in May. He was sentenced in August to 10 months of incarceration followed by 36 months of supervised release and a special assessment of $100. 

Handy’s lawyers say they plan to appeal her conviction.

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