On Friday, anti-choice extremists descended on three cities in a unified effort to apparently violate the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, the law designed to protect access to abortion clinics. The protests are part of a renewed effort by anti-choice activists to push the limits of those protections and to curb access to legal abortion as much as possible. The question now is: What, if anything, will Attorney General Jeff Sessions do about them?
Friday’s so-called Red Rose Rescue targeted abortion clinics in Michigan, New Mexico, and Virginia. According to anti-choice supporters, activists entered clinics to “talk to women scheduled for abortions.” Those protesters refused to leave the clinics when told to do so by law enforcement officers, who eventually arrested the protesters for trespassing.
Congress passed the FACE Act in 1994, making it a federal crime for anyone to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to prevent people from obtaining or providing reproductive health-care services. The statute also provides for civil remedies against blocking access to abortion facilities, including fines for those found liable. It is up to the Department of Justice to prosecute those appearing to break the law.
And Friday’s actions clearly violate it. According to the press release announcing the incidents protesters went inside clinics and in “small teams,” “approached mothers seated in the waiting rooms and offered them red roses as a symbol of life.” According to the activists, each card had a rose attached to it that read, “You were made to love and to be loved… your goodness is greater than the difficulties of your situation. Circumstances in life change.” The cards also contained the phone numbers of “crisis pregnancy centers” notorious for providing false and misleading information about abortion to potential patients.
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Entering clinics is a form of blockading access to abortion services, which fits within the the FACE Act’s prohibition on “physical obstruction to prevent people from obtaining or providing reproductive health-care services.”
Protests like the Red Rose Rescue are the kind of anti-choice harassment that preceded the murder of Dr. James Britton by Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian Minister in 1994. Hill began as one of those activists. His final words before his execution in 2003 were to instruct others members of the anti-choice community to use violence to support their belief that abortion is murder.
“The last thing I want to say: If you believe abortion is a lethal force, you should oppose the force and do what you have to do to stop it. May God help you to protect the unborn as you would want to be protected,” Hill said, according to law enforcement records of his execution.
The law has helped to push back some of the most aggressive and violent protesters. States began to pass buffer zone laws, designed to balance the rights of protesters with the rights of patients and providers. Until recently, anti-choice activists had largely stopped trying to storm clinics to close them down.
The FACE Act is not without its flaws, though. Abortion providers claim the law does not go far enough to protect clinics, providers, and patients. And the FACE Act didn’t prevent the murder of Dr. George Tiller by Scott Roeder—who had reportedly been caught on camera gluing clinic locks the day before—in 2009, nor did it stop Robert Lewis Dear Jr. from allegedly shooting his way into a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015, killing three people.
Dear has yet to stand trial for his crimes and has been declared incompetent to do so. Dear himself has repeatedly told the court and media he wants to go before the court in order to argue that the Colorado siege was legally justifiable based on his strong opposition to abortion. This “justifiable homicide” defense is the same legal argument made by Hill, Roeder, and other anti-choice extremists; it is the kind echoed by the political forces leading the anti-choice movement.
Monica Migliorino Miller, director of Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, which participated in the actions at the Michigan clinic, explained the actions in a statement announcing that the protests were underway. “The Red Rose Rescue is an act of charity for women who feel for whatever reason they must have their innocent unborn children killed,” she said. “Those who took part [in the protests] were willing to embrace risks for these women and their babies. We will go into the very places where the unborn are put to death and extend help to the moms.”
Migliorino Miller continued: “Should this help be refused—we will not leave the abortion centers but remain in solidarity with the helpless victims oppressed by the injustice of abortion.”
According to the statement, those arrested include two Catholic priests, Fathers Stephen Imbarrato and Fidelis Moscinski, who were arrested in Alexandria, Virginia. Imbarrato is a member of Priests for Life, one of the groups fighting the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit. Moscinski is part of Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, which believes that “abortion is a crime which no human law can claim to legitimize,” the group said in the same statement. “There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.”
Those words sound early like the same calls for protest and violence advocated by Hill, Roeder, and Dear. They also sound like the kind of protections President Trump promised evangelicals could expect under his administration with the release of his religious imposition order in May.
That same month, anti-choice activists descended on the last remaining clinic in Kentucky, after first announcing their plans to revive the pre-FACE Act “rescue missions.” Several protesters have since been reportedly charged with FACE Act violations and face prosecution for their participation in the Kentucky rescue. Those cases are ongoing; how seriously the Department of Justice continues them remains to be seen.
The anti-choice community has clearly been emboldened by the evangelicals stacked in the Trump administration and are willing to test the limits of federal law protecting clinics. As Sofia Resnick has reported for Rewire, this is a sentiment that goes all the way to “mainstream” anti-choice advocacy groups such as The Susan B. Anthony List, an organization dedicated to getting anti-choice politicians elected to office.
A vigorous prosecution of the Red Rose protesters and the Kentucky protesters should be a no-brainer, given the blatant violation of federal law by each activist.
But under this administration, it’s not. Sessions is a man willing to prosecute protesters for heckling him during his confirmation hearing for disorderly conduct, but unwilling to support the civil rights of transgender students, campus assault survivors, voters of color, and immigrant communities.
If Sessions is willing to go after the constitutional protections guaranteed to historically politically vulnerable communities, there is no reason to think he will take seriously the constitutional protections afforded to abortion patients and providers. That will leave protecting those rights to local law enforcement—which, as the Rewire documentary Care in Chaos illustrates, can leave clinics, patients, and providers with very little protection from harassment and violence at all.