Three more pro-life activists convicted on federal charges for blockade at abortion clinic

Attorneys arrive at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington, Aug. 28, 2023. Three more pro-life activists were convicted Sept. 15 on federal felony charges of conspiracy against rights and violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE, Act for a blockade at a Washington abortion clinic in 2020. (OSV News photo/Kevin Wurm, Reuters)

by Kurt Jensen

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Three more pro-life activists, including one famous in the 1980s for her abortion clinic “rescues,” were convicted Sept. 15 on federal felony charges of conspiracy against rights and violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, for a blockade at a Washington abortion clinic in 2020.

These activists, along with five others found guilty Aug. 29, face as many as 11 years in federal prison, fines of up to $350,000 each and three years of supervised release. A ninth activist was ruled Sept. 15 to be unfit to face trial. A 10th activist, Jay Smith, 32, of Freeport, New York, entered a guilty plea in March; he received a 10-month sentence.

Following the verdict, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the defendants immediately detained. Sentencing will be scheduled at a later date.

The combined charges are the strongest action federal prosecutors have taken against clinic blockades, known as “lock and block” because activists attempt to lock gates outside and block doors inside. The tactics, used often in the 1980s, saw a revival beginning in 2017.

Convicted by a jury in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia Sept 15 were:

— Joan Andrews Bell, 74, of Montague, New Jersey. Bell gained fame decades ago for her participation in Operation Rescue and her willingness to endure long terms of incarceration, including solitary confinement, after clinic blockade and trespassing convictions.

Bell has been a Catholic activist since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that declared abortion a constitutional right until the high court reversed its precedent in the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision. Bell is a veteran of the clinic “rescues,” serving jail terms in Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh as well as state prison in Pensacola, Florida.

Her husband, Christopher Bell, is president and executive director of the New Jersey-based Good Counsel Homes. Joan Andrews Bell declined a lawyer and represented herself in court.

— Jonathan Darnel, 40, of Arlington, Virginia. He livestreamed the blockade. In a statement to a local TV station before the trial, Darnel said, “Any inconvenience, pain or ostracization I will suffer in the course of this upcoming legal wrangling is nothing compared to the suffering and abandonment preborn kids suffer daily.”

Darnel, a Protestant, has previous arrests for clinic protests in Maryland and Virginia. According to the prosecution’s filing, he was a principal planner of the blockade along with Lauren Handy, who is Catholic and was in the group of activists convicted Aug. 29.

— Jean Marshall, 72, of Kingston, Massachusetts. She was charged with blocking inside clinic doors.

A Justice Department statement said Marshall and the other defendants “engaged in a conspiracy to create a blockade at the reproductive health care clinic to prevent the clinic from providing, and patients from receiving, reproductive health services. As part of the conspiracy, Marshall and Bell traveled to the Washington area to meet with Darnel and participate in a clinic blockade that was directed by another co-conspirator and was broadcast on Facebook.”

Paulette Harlow, 73, also of Kingston, Massachusetts, was ruled unfit to face trial. In the indictment, prosecutors alleged Harlow unloaded a duffel bag filled with a chain and rope to tie herself and four other protesters together.

The conspiracy-against-rights charges, which stem from a civil rights law passed in 1870 and amended twice since then, alleged advance planning involving participants who arrived from other states. The FACE Act, meant to keep clinic entrances safe from intruders, was passed in 1994.

Sentencing for all eight pro-life activists — including Lauren Handy, John Hinshaw, Heather Idoni, William Goodman and Herb Geraghty who were found guilty Aug. 29 — over the clinic blockade will be later this year.

The activists’ blockade, which lasted about three hours, occurred at Washington Surgi-Clinic Oct. 22, 2020.

On its web page, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division lists three similar criminal cases to the one in Washington, involving abortion clinic blockades in Florida in 2022 and in Detroit and the Nashville, Tennessee, area in 2021. The Washington case is the first to go to trial.

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