Federal judge sentences 6 more pro-life activists to federal prison terms

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Pro-life activists
Attorneys arrive at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington in this file photo from Aug. 28, 2023. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly on May 14 and 15, 2024, sentenced six more pro-life activists to federal prison terms over a District of Columbia abortion clinic blockade. (OSV News photo/Kevin Wurm, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — Most of the pro-life activists sentenced to federal prison terms in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia May 14 and 15 along with Lauren Handy are Catholics with years in the “rescue movement” and other arrests.

Handy, 30, of Alexandria, Virginia, received the longest sentence, 57 months, for violating the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, and the charge of conspiracy against rights, which referred to the advance planning involved in a blockade at Washington Surgi-Clinic in October 2022.

Handy made a fake patient appointment to enter the clinic, prosecutors said, and her group’s “lock and block” tactics used chains, locks, and passively resisting arrests in the clinic waiting room, to prolong the blockade, which lasted more than two hours.

Pro-life activists sentenced for abortion clinic blockade

Six others have received lighter sentences on identical charges from U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly.

The best-known of the six is Joan Andrews Bell, 76, of Montague, New Jersey, who received 27 months. Bell has been an activist since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that declared abortion a constitutional right. The high court reversed its precedent set by Roe in the June 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

Bell gained fame decades ago for her participation in Operation Rescue and her willingness to endure incarceration, including solitary confinement, after clinic blockade and trespassing convictions. She has served jail terms in Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh as well as in state prison in Pensacola, Florida, Her husband, Christopher Bell, co-founded the New Jersey-based Good Counsel Homes for unwed mothers.

Joan Andrews Bell garnered praise from Bishop Kevin J. Sweeney of Paterson, New Jersey, in 2023.

“I believe that it is important that we consider what it is like for someone to be willing to sacrifice so much for a ’cause,’ for what they believe God is asking them to do as they listen prayerfully to the voice of their conscience,” he wrote in Paterson’s diocesan newspaper, The Beacon.

“When I asked Chris how Joan was doing, here was part of his reply: ‘She’s been able to call every day. She’s in good spirits. She and I accept this time for her as an opportunity to pray and do reparation for our sins and the sin of abortion.'”

John Hinshaw, 69, of Levittown, New York, sentenced to 21 months, participated in the first March for Life in January 1974. He was involved in Operation Rescue in the 1980s and 1990s, and has participated in clinic blockades organized by the Michigan-based Red Rose Rescue. In April 2023, Hinshaw was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years’ probation for criminal trespass and obstructing the police for a Red Rose Rescue in April 2021 in Manhasset, New York.

He was one of the few to address Judge Kollar-Kotelly.

“I am sorry that I have failed in my vocation as a father to protect children,” he said. “I am sorry to this court that it has failed in its vocation to protect its nation’s children.”

“I stand convicted, though guiltless. I take on the guilt of this judge. Accept my love for you, judge, as expiation for your guilt,” he concluded.

William Goodman, 54, of the Bronx, New York, who was sentenced to 27 months, had written about attending Masses and a daily Bible study at the Alexandria, Virginia, jail where most defendants had been kept since their convictions last year. In August 2022, he was sentenced to three months in jail for criminal trespass during a Red Rose Rescue in November 2021 at All Women’s Health in White Plains, New York.

Jean Marshall, 73, of Kingston, Massachusetts, received 24 months. Her sister, Paula “Paulette” Harlow, 77, awaits sentencing. Both are Secular Franciscans. Harlow has been in home confinement since her conviction.

Activists still awaiting sentencing

Also awaiting sentencing is Heather Idoni, 62, a Protestant from Linden, Michigan. She faces another FACE Act sentence July 30 in Tennessee for her participation in a blockade of an abortion clinic in Mount Juliet in March 2021.

The others sentenced are:

— Herb Geraghty, 27, of Pittsburgh, 27 months. He was accused by prosecutors of having been part of Handy’s planning of the blockade. He identifies as an atheist and is a board member of the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians.

— Jonathan Darnel, 42, of Arlington, Virginia, 34 months. Darnel, an evangelical and former Army captain, livestreamed the blockade on Facebook and was accused by prosecutors of having led it along with Handy. He also was convicted in 2022 of trespassing at an Alexandria abortion clinic.

All the federal convictions include an additional three years of supervised release.

In March 2023, a 10th defendant, Jay Smith, 33, a Catholic from Freeport, New York, entered a guilty plea and received a 10-month sentence.

“Violence has no place in our national discourse on reproductive health,” assistant attorney general Kristen Clarke, of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “Using force, threatening to use force or physically obstructing access to reproductive health care is unlawful.”

The Catholic Church opposes abortion because it holds that all human life is sacred from conception to natural death. The church also makes clear that all advocacy for justice must use only moral means, with St. John Paul II teaching in his 1993 encyclical “Veritatis Splendor” that a person cannot “intend directly something which of its very nature contradicts the moral order … even though the intention is to protect or promote the welfare of an individual, of a family or of society in general.”

Kurt Jensen

Kurt Jensen reports for OSV News from Washington.