On May 11, 1978 twenty-seven people—three rows-thick—blocked the hallway leading to the procedure rooms of the Concord Medical Services abortion center in Chicago. I was among the twelve who refused to disperse when police officers arrived and said, “Okay, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve made your point—leave now or you will be placed under arrest.” We were arrested and charged with “trespass to land.” This was the first “sit-in” to take place in Chicago following the Roe v. Wade decision, organized by the late Joseph Scheidler, who then was executive director of the Illinois Right-to-Life Committee. This “sit-in”—meant as a practical defense of unborn children scheduled to be aborted—was the pre-cursor to what would, ten years later, become a full-blown national rescue movement, resulting in hundreds of “clinic blockades” and thousands of arrests.
The twelve of us pled “not-guilty,” and our attorney Carmen Speranza requested “a defense of necessity,” as we hoped to show that our “trespass” was necessary to prevent a greater evil from occurring—namely the killing of unborn children—and present evidence regarding the humanity of those children. The defense was denied and we opted for a quick bench trial before the elderly Judge John Doyle. Left without any effective legal arguments (after all, we didn’t deny physically obstructing with our bodies the abortion center hallway) we were swiftly convicted. Our penalty was merely six-months court supervision. In other words, don’t get yourself into similar legal trouble for another 180 days. Free to simply walk right out of Doyle’s court, it was the least penalty one could receive, short of an actual suspended sentence.
Fast-forward to August 29, 2023. After a fourteen-day jury trial before federal judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly in Washington, D.C., five pro-lifers were convicted of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), a felony conviction with a maximum one-year prison term. As soon as the jury finished pronouncing the pro-lifers “guilty,” federal marshals, already present in court, immediately took them into custody and they were booked into the federal prison in Alexandria, VA. However, not only were these pro-lifers—Lauren Handy, Will Goodman, Heather Idoni, John Hinshaw and Herb Geraghty—convicted of FACE, they were also charged with and convicted of “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights” This latter charge carries a ten-year prison term and a $350,000 fine—possibly making the prison sentence eleven years!
The FACE act reads:
Whoever by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because that person is or has been, or in order to intimidate such person or any other person or any class of persons from, obtaining or providing reproductive health services.
Persons are guilty of violating the Conspiracy Against Rights statute
[i]f two or more persons conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person in any State, Territory, Commonwealth, Possession, or District in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having so exercised the same.
Between 1978 and 2023 much has changed in the pro-abortion landscape for pro-lifers who dare to non-violently defend unborn children from abortion. We’ve gone from a measly six months of court supervision to the possibility of spending years in federal prison if the rescue involves “physical obstruction.”
On October 22, 2020, these five pro-lifers, joined by five others, conducted a rescue at the Washington Surgi Center, owned and operated by Cesare Santangelo, who specializes in late-term abortion procedures. The participants described the rescue as “traditional”—as it involved blocking doors to the abortion facility—as opposed to a Red Rose Rescue, in which pro-lifers do not block doors or hallways. The five defendants expected to be charged with FACE—but never expected the additional conspiracy charge.
On March 25, 2022, the driver of a medical waste truck arrived at the Washington Surgi-Center. Believing that the driver was there to most likely collect dead bodies, Lauren Handy and Terrisa Bukovinac, present outside the “clinic,” asked if the driver would give them the boxes. And he did. They contained one hundred and fifteen aborted babies. One hundred and ten of those victims, aborted in the first trimester, have already been buried. However, five of Santangelo’s victims are very large babies, clearly killed well into the second trimester and possibly the third. Four of the victim’s have bodies still largely intact. The bodies were confiscated by the FBI during a raid on the row house where Handy was living at the time. They are being “kept on ice” to this very day at the Washington D.C. Medical Examiner’s office. Since October 2020, Handy joined the newly formed Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) and PAAU members gave names to the five victims: Harriet, Christopher X, Holly, Ángel, and Phoenix.
During the trial, thirty-year old Handy took the stand and told the jury she had been heavily influenced by a 2013 Live Action under-cover sting video in which Santangelo is featured discussing his late-term abortions. He admitted that after he severs the umbilical cord unborn babies have been “born-alive” in his abortion center; he stated, in his own words: “It’s happened before.” When pressed by the undercover pro-life investigators, he explained that some women on the second day of the “procedure” went into labor, “they panicked – checked into a Virginia hospital instead of calling me, and the hospital helped them to deliver, which was the stupidest thing they could have done. And they [the hospital] did everything they shouldn’t have done which was help them to deliver.” If a woman did call Santangelo, she could be assured that her born-alive baby would not survive. Santangelo states: “Legally we would be obligated to help it survive.” However, he clearly goes on to admit: “We would not help it,” meaning Santangelo simply allows unborn children born-alive in his late-term “procedures” do die from neglect.
Handy’s defense team had hoped that if indeed Santangelo was allowing such babies to die, the FACE statute could not apply to the defendants. Neglect of unborn children born-alive is not abortion but infanticide—and the FACE act doesn’t protect such “reproductive health services”. Months before the trial began on August 9th, defense attorneys, several of them from the Thomas More Society and Life-Legal Defense Foundation, filed motions requesting “defense of others,” “defense of necessity” and “defense of a third party.” Judge Kollar-Kotelly denied them all.
After all, according to Roe v. Wade, the unborn were not considered “others” as the Roe decision denied they were persons. For the purposes of the right-to-life they didn’t even exist. And post-Roe, they still may as well not exist depending on their geographical location. Since killing the unborn is legal, the necessity defense is denied as there is no harm and no evil committed that would make it necessary for laws to be broken to prevent such evils. Thus, defense attorneys could not mention these defenses nor could they make any arguments regarding First Amendment protections—or any Constitutional protections, selective or vindictive prosecution, jury nullification, that the charges were unjust, immoral or contrary to natural law. Nor let jurors know the pro-lifers are charged with felonies with a jail term up to 11 years. Nor were they permitted to say anything about the good character of the defendants.
As for whether Santangelo performed illegal abortion procedures, Kollar-Kotelly would not admit the Live Action video into evidence. Even though Santangelo admits he neglects unborn children born alive, leaving them to perish, clearly contrary to the law, she stated that the “video was subject to multiple interpretations, and could even be viewed as favorable to Santangelo.” But if the video is possibly favorable to Santangelo, then it makes no sense for her to rule that it is “inadmissible as evidence”! Kollar-Kotelly also argued that the video could bias the jury as Santangelo is referred to as an “abortionist,” a negative and pejorative term, even though aborting unborn children is what the man does for a living. Furthermore she described the Live Action You Tube video that so heavily-influenced Handy, as “edited anti-abortion propaganda.” The six-minute video is only part of a much-longer video that Handy did not view.
Months ago, Kollar-Kotelly also ruled that the five late-term aborted babies, whose yet to be performed autopsies may reveal they were illegally killed by Santangelo, also could not be admitted. First, she argued that Handy saw these aborted babies months after the rescue—and thus they had no bearing on Handy’s motivation to conduct the rescue at the Washington Surgi-Center where they had been killed, even though they do serve to corroborate the Live Action video and Handy’s motivation. Kollar-Kotelly also based her denial of the motion on a “balancing rule”—namely that the probative value of relevant evidence may be kept out if it is substantially outweighed by the prejudicial value to the jury.
Thus, the pro-lifers were left essentially defenseless, forced to prove their innocence based on technicalities of law.
Nearly all aspects of the trial of these five pro-lifers are unprecedented in the history of the pro-life movement. Charges were brought after a grand jury investigation. This was followed by a seven state FBI sting operation in which agents burst into homes of two defendants with battering rams and guns drawn, dragging pro-lifers out in the dead of night. These are the first pro-lifers to be charged with the federal law of “conspiracy to interfere with civil rights”—causing them to face the possible additional ten-year jail term. It’s the first case in which pro-lifers were pressured by the Department of Justice with spending time in jail should they be convicted, prompting one of the defendants, the un-married father of two young children, to plead “guilty” to all charges and thus “cut a deal” with the “feds.” However, this “deal” wasn’t much of a break, as he was still stuck with a ten-month jail term in federal prison.
One must wonder, if that’s what you get in a plea agreement, what can the other pro-lifers who opted to stand trial expect now that they have been found guilty. The pro-lifers also had to suffer the testimony of a fellow pro-lifer who sided with the prosecution. This was twenty-three-year-old Caroline Davis, who was present at the October 22, 2020 rescue. The DOJ threatened Davis with the conspiracy charge. To avoid prosecution, Davis turned state’s evidence, took the stand and testified against the defendants. In her interview with the FBI Davis disavowed pro-life rescues, saying that she now sees the “error of her ways.” Regarding her willingness to testify for the prosecution, Davis stated in her FBI report: “I don’t see this as stabbing them in the back because they are stabbing themselves in the front.” Ironically, Davis participated with this author in a May 2020 Red Rose Rescue in which we were found “not guilty”.
Finally, there is the unprecedented participation of Herb Geraghty—biologically a female who, donning the appearance of a man, now identifies as a non-binary “male.” Despite this defendant’s atheism and view of human sexuality, Geraghty is totally committed to the pro-life cause—willing to face eleven years in prison in defense of the unborn.
The fate of these pro-lifers was essentially already sealed in voir dire, the phase of the trial in which jurors are selected. This author sat through two long days observing the jury-selection process. One question each prospective juror had to answer went like this:
In this trial ‘abortion’ will be mentioned, but this case is not about abortion, not whether it is right or wrong, just or unjust – it’s about whether clinics have a right to operate. Do you have any beliefs about abortion that would render you to not be fair and impartial in this case?
After five days, a total of eighty-eight potential jurors had been questioned. Forty-four of them, a solid half, proudly proclaimed their support for “a woman’s right to choose.” Many of them donated money to Planned Parenthood and participated in pro-abortion rallies. One young Hispanic prospective juror said he actually donated money directly to abortion centers in Florida, attended pro-abortion rallies, was very concerned about maintaining access to abortion, attended a protest at the Supreme Court against the Dobbs decision and admitted that he disapproved of persons who denied women access to abortion.
In an attempt to learn if jurors could be “fair and impartial,” Kollar-Kotelly repeatedly told potential jurors:
This trial has nothing to do with abortion. If you serve on this jury you will not be deciding if abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust. This trial is only about access to reproductive care and whether clinics that provide such care should operate free of interference.
But, of course, the term “reproductive health care” is merely code for “abortion.” This is exactly as if Kollar-Kotelly were to say: “This trial is not about whether the institution of slavery is right or wrong, just or unjust. It’s only about whether there should be access to slave markets—whether such markets should be able to operate free of interference.” Certainly those who support slavery would also support access to the places where slaves may be purchased!
Let’s not forget that the pro-lifers were charged with FACE. And FACE is specifically about securing access to abortion, and these pro-lifers are accused of physically preventing access to abortion by blocking doors and hallways. Even when the pro-life attorneys called for the judge to strike these pro-abortion potential jurors for cause, because they said they believed access to abortion was important, Kollar-Kotelly actually defended them saying: “But access to abortion is legal and it’s a good thing for jurors to support what is legal.” Of course, it didn’t seem to occur to the judge that laws that permit the killing of the unborn and laws such as FACE, that protect access to such killing, are unjust.
Here are potential jurors, totally committed to abortion, who personally advocate for abortion—and yet Judge Kollar-Kotelly did not strike any of them for cause. All these jurors had to do, despite their commitment to the legalized killing of babies, was say the magic words: “I can still be fair and impartial.” When the jury selection was over, four of the jurors who actively supported abortion were seated. Another two were in “gay marriages”. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the latter jurors support “a woman’s right to choose.” However, to be realistic, this demographic is not known to be sympathetic to the pro-life cause.
This author has participated in several rescues, stood trial, been convicted and served four jail terms. Because the unborn are not recognized as persons, because the judicial process deliberately keeps them invisible, because, as Kollar-Kotelly repeatedly said, “This case is not about abortion”, pro-lifers who stand trial for defending the unborn feel as if they are the only sane people in an insane asylum. I have even been in trials in which judges ruled the word “abortion” itself could not be used by pro-lifers when they testified.
Robert Muise of the American Freedom Law Center, who has defended pro-lifers in Red Rose Rescues, calls it the “abortion distortion.” The prosecution of pro-lifers is based on a lie. It is a lie that the unborn are not human, are not persons, and not deserving of protection from those, such as Santangelo, who conspire to kill them. On March 30th of this year I stood before Michigan Judge Cynthia Arvant—awaiting my sentence for a 2022 Red Rose Rescue. I addressed her saying: “Your Honor, in the objective world of what is morally right and wrong, I am not guilty.” She immediately responded: “I don’t operate in the objective world.”
On September 6th, the next trial will begin of the four other pro-lifers who participated in the October 22, 2020 rescue. They will be tried before the same judge, with the same prosecutors. They are Joan Andrews Bell, Jean Marshall, Paulette Harlow and Jonathan Darnell. Bell has decided to act as her own attorney; Marshall and Harlow have court-appointed defense lawyers. Only Darnell has a skilled attorney with pro-life convictions. One of the defense attorneys for the first five pro-lifers commented to me that these four “are lambs led to the slaughter.” Should they be convicted, formal sentencing will occur for all nine pro-lifers at the conclusion of this trial.
Forty-five years ago pro-lifers in Chicago “suffered” a mere six months court supervision. What has happened since then? A very large segment of our culture has become ever more hardened against the sanctity of life and ever more aggressive in defense of a “woman’s right to choose” even resorting to violence in the wake of the Dobbs decision—violence against property and pro-lifers. Add to this the Biden administration’s total commitment to secure legalized abortion on-demand through the ninth month of pregnancy. And a Department of Justice, under Merrick Garland, emboldened and equipped to vigorously prosecute and severely punish pro-lifers who dare interfere with this “sacred” right.
Five pro-lifers now sit in a federal prison. Their suffering is joined to the five aborted unborn—their mangled bodies still kept in a dark cold storage locker at the D.C. Medical Examiner’s office. Yes ago, Joan Andrews Bell, spoke these words from a jail cell in Florida—words that still ring true today: “You reject them—you reject me.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!