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There’s A Dishonest Right-Wing Furor Over Recent Arrests Of Anti-Abortion Activists

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It’s been a federal crime for nearly 30 years to intimidate or interfere with any person attempting to obtain or provide reproductive health care services. But two recent indictments by the Department of Justice for such violations have enraged some influential conservatives, who at the moment are stoking a false narrative a couple of supposed war against the religious right.

It began with outstanding anti-abortion minister Mark Houck, who late last month was arrested on federal charges that he allegedly twice assaulted a 72-year-old patient escort outside of a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. If proven, it could be a transparent violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 1994 law that makes it a federal crime to make use of force or the specter of force to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person attempting to obtain or provide reproductive health care services.

Earlier this week, 11 anti-choice protesters were arrested on the identical federal charges after the group created a blockade in front of a Tennessee abortion clinic, livestreaming the event on Facebook as they actively prevented a patient and worker from entering. The group in Tennessee openly acknowledged what they were doing was a criminal offense when one protester told the remaining: “For those who’re not planning on being arrested, don’t sit in front of the door,” in response to the indictment.

But to listen to many outstanding conservatives tell it, the arrests were dramatic abuses of power by the Biden administration.

“Biden Has Declared War On Conservative Christians,” blared a headline for a Tucker Carlson segment concerning the Houck arrest. The hosts of “Fox & Friends” posited the minister’s arrest was the beginning of “the weaponization of the DOJ and the FBI” for Biden’s pro-choice purposes.

An anti-abortion advocate holds a cross outside of the Supreme Court in the course of the March for Life, Jan. 27, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Drew Angerer via Getty Images

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) wrote a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, signed by 11 other Senate Republicans, which declared “If the shocking reports concerning the FBI arresting a person Friday in rural Pennsylvania are true, then you might have lots to reply for,” and later promised on Twitter that if Republicans take control in Congress next yr, there might be public investigations into the matter.

As for the Tennessee indictments, “It’s a rampage by Garland. That is getting ugly,” tweeted one outstanding columnist for the conservative Washington Examiner. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called them “partisan abuse” on Twitter Thursday, and added “Merrick Garland has done more to destroy the integrity of DOJ & the FBI than any AG in history.”

Houck and the Tennessee group are only two examples of a nationwide network of activists who’ve, for a long time, engaged in a campaign of intimidation that goals to dam people from obtaining basic health care. The sudden conservative storm across the arrests has played fast and loose with the facts around each cases, and has the texture of a campaign, emboldened by the autumn of Roe, that seeks to normalize obstruction to reproductive services.

There’s something notable concerning the Tennessee arrests, in comparison with most FACE Act violations charged over the past decade. Every FACE Act prosecution prior to this yr also involved an underlying crime: a mass shooting, a bombing, vandalization, destruction of property, or bomb and death threats. However the Tennessee protestors, in addition to nine people involved in the same protest in Washington, D.C., who were charged earlier this yr, were indicted straightforwardly for obstructing access to clinics absent any underlying violence or illegal threat.

The arrests mark an escalation within the increasingly fraught battleground in front of clinics, which has often had deadly consequences.

Between 1977 and 2020, anti-abortion activists committed no less than 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 956 threats of harm or death, 624 stalking incidents and 4 kidnappings, in response to an evaluation from the National Abortion Federation. Anti-choice protesters have bombed 42 abortion clinics, set fire to 194, attempted to bomb or burn an extra 104 and made 667 bomb threats in that very same time period.

Houck, 48, was arrested for 2 incidents that took place outside of Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center on the identical day last October. His alleged victim was a 72-year-old clinic escort, referred to throughout court documents as B.L., and who was attempting to escort two patients exiting the Planned Parenthood when Houck shoved the volunteer to the bottom, in response to the indictment. Within the second incident, the indictment states that Houck “verbally confronted B.L. and forcefully shoved B.L. to the bottom … causing injuries to B.L. that required medical attention.” It notes that B.L. was wearing a bright-orange vest that identified her or him as a patient escort.

Some conservative outlets reported that the volunteer escort only mentioned being shoved by Houck once in a previous criminal grievance, although the federal indictment alleges there have been two incidents.

If convicted, Houck faces a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release and fines as much as $350,000. Seven of the 11 Tennessee protesters were charged with “conspiracy against rights secured by the FACE Act,” which holds similar sentencing and fines to the Houck charges. The opposite 4 Tennessee protesters resist one yr in prison and fines as much as $10,000.

“Assault is all the time a serious offense, and under the FACE Act, if the victim is targeted due to their association with a reproductive healthcare clinic, it’s a federal crime,” U.S. Attorney Jaqueline Romero said within the DOJ’s press release about Houck’s arrest. “Our Office and the Department of Justice are committed to prosecuting crimes which threaten the protection and rights of all individuals.”

Houck often stood outside of the clinic for hours, and tried to speak patients into going to the crisis pregnancy center positioned round the corner, Lindsey Mauldin, an worker of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania who oversees security on the clinic, told HuffPost. The minister and father of seven touts himself as a “sidewalk counselor” and drives to Philadelphia once every week to protest two different abortion clinics, including the Planned Parenthood where this incident allegedly took place.

Houck has continued to protest in front of the clinic multiple times every week for the reason that initial incident in October 2021, said Mauldin. Although, she noted, Houck has not been on the clinic since his arrest as he’s legally prohibited from being anywhere near Planned Parenthood clinic while the case is ongoing.

“We stay in contact with the police since it makes us nervous but he’s allowed to be there,” she said, noting that she and other clinic staff have seen him holding a knife in a holster belt when he protests. “He also often wields a really large knife on his person while he’s outside, which in fact is a tactic to attempt to scare patients and security.”

Conservatives don’t appear to be contesting the facts of the assault. For her part, Ryan-Marie Houck disputed the DOJ’s allegations that her husband assaulted the clinic escort for doing his job, in an interview with anti-abortion website LifeSite News. She alleges that the clinic escort was saying “inappropriate and disgusting” comments to Houck’s 12-year-old son who he often brings to the clinic when he protests, including telling the kid “your dad’s a fag.” Ryan-Marie Houck said her husband told the clinic escort to stop chatting with his son, but “he kept doing it and type of got here into [the son’s] personal space.” That’s when, she says, Houck pushed the volunteer away and he fell to the bottom.

Many conservatives have focused more on the circumstances of Houck’s arrest after Ryan-Marie Houck accused the FBI and “a SWAT team of about 25” of barging into their home, guns blazing, to arrest Houck in front of his seven children, she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. She later recounted to Tucker Carlson that there can have been as much as 30 FBI agents.

The FBI’s Philadelphia field office responded to the Houcks’ claims, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that the accusations were “inaccurate” and there was no SWAT team present, and described the arrest as “consistent with standard practices.”

When reached for comment, Houck’s attorney Peter Breen directed HuffPost to an earlier statement, which didn’t go up to now as to say there was a SWAT team present. “This case is being brought solely to intimidate people of religion and pro-life Americans,” Breen said last month. “ … In threatening form, after nearly breaking down the family’s front door, no less than five agents pointed guns at Mark and arrested him in front of his wife and 7 young children, who were terrified that their husband and father can be shot dead before their eyes.”

Houck’s disruptive presence outside the clinic — which eventually, in response to the indictment, escalated to assaults — is an element of a broader anti-choice tactic stretching back a long time. The religious right has a long history of violence against reproductive health care providers and patients, which is why Congress passed the FACE Act in 1994.

The Tennessee arrests seem like clear violations of that very same law — the people arrested livestreamed their blockade and were clear about what they were doing and why.

The activists, who ranged in age from 24 to 73, blocked the doorway to the Carafem Health Center Clinic, in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, one morning in March 2021. One protester livestreamed the incident on Facebook and encouraged anyone watching to return to the clinic and help “stop as many murderous appointments as we are able to,” in response to the indictment.

One other protester asked a patient if she was “trying to return to the abortion mill.” When the patient walked away, the protester “encouraged one in every of his children” to approach her. The group livestreamed the patient speaking with an worker, and told the livestream audience she was a “mom coming to kill her baby,” in response to the indictment. The patient and a clinic worker were barred from entering the clinic.

In each cases, providers of reproductive services welcomed the federal assistance in keeping patients and clinics protected.

“The FACE Act was put into place to guard patients for this very reason,” said Mauldin, the Planned Parenthood worker who oversees security on the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center. “Patients getting into our facilities have already got to leap through plenty of hoops to have the ability to access sexual and reproductive health care and Mr. Houck has been a longtime proponent of standing of their way.”

“I don’t think this was an overreach. Mr. Houck has had a history of violating the FACE Act either through intimidation, scare tactics or in some cases pure violence,” she added. “He says … that he’ll do anything to attempt to stop someone from having an abortion. What we’ve seen is just that.”

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