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On Roe v. Wade anniversary, investigation into abortion clinic violence

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Monday, January 22, 2024   

By Amanda Robb for Ms. Magazine.
Broadcast version by Suzanne Potter for the Ms. Magazine-Public News Service Collaboration

At 9:05 a.m. on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, a group of anti-abortion extremists from at least six states forced their way into the Washington Surgi-Clinic, a facility that provides abortion care in Washington, D.C. Some bound themselves together with chains, ropes and bike locks to block access to the clinic's patient area. Others obstructed access to its employee entrance. Several used their bodies to try to prevent patients from entering the facility. Still more moved about assaulting patients-mostly verbally, but in one case physically-in the waiting room, a hallway and even in the small elevator leading to the fourth-floor clinic.

On March 30, 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine of these extremists on two criminal counts: violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act and felony "conspiracy against [civil] rights." According to research by Ms. and its publisher, the Feminist Majority Foundation, this was the first time a "conspiracy against rights" charge had been added to a FACE prosecution. The attachment is significant because it affirms what abortion rights advocates have documented and tried to bring to the attention of authorities for decades: Anti-abortion extremists-including its most violent actors-are connected and coordinated. The additional charge also increases the possible punishment for the crimes from a maximum of one year in prison to up to 11 years of incarceration.

In August and September 2023, federal juries convicted eight of the defendants on both the FACE Act and conspiracy counts. The ninth chose a bench trial and was found guilty in November 2023.

Caroline Davis, now a 25-year-old paralegal living in Atlanta, would have been a 10th defendant in the case-but because she was facing the possibility of more than 30 years in prison for having also blockaded abortion clinics in Michigan and Tennessee, she flipped. In exchange for a lenient sentence for her crimes, Davis told federal agents, prosecutors and, ultimately, two trial juries everything she knew about the planning for the Washington, D.C., clinic incursion.

This article reveals, for the first time, how a violent clinic invasion was planned and executed. It is based on testimony by Davis, forensic analysis by FBI agents of the defendants' social media and cell phone records, footage obtained from the clinic's security cameras and responding police officers' body cameras, as well as the extremists' own Facebook livestream of what they interchangeably called a "lock-and-block" and a "rescue" (a term coined by anti-abortion extremists to mean physically preventing women from obtaining abortion care).

Fitting those pieces together shows that despite their protestations to the contrary, these extremists knowingly broke the law and willfully engaged in physical aggression. It also reveals that they were secretly materially supported by a network that included prominent individuals-"respectable" people who knew about the planned crime and provided the means to accomplish it, yet were not indicted as accessories.

Laying the Groundwork

Lauren Handy, in her late 20s, is a veteran of the young-adult anti-abortion extremist group Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust who became a leader of the Washington, D.C.-based Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. PAAU is an allegedly left-wing, extremist anti-abortion organization "committed to direct action by putting our bodies between the oppressed and the oppressor."

Jonathan Darnel, in his early 40s, is a self-described "quasi full-time" anti-abortion crusader who ran a Facebook page called DC Area Anti-Abortion Advocacy.

On Sept. 11, 2020-43 days before the clinic invasion-Handy reached out to Darnel via Facebook Messenger. She asked him to review an invitation she was preparing for a Zoom meeting to "further nonviolent direct action within the pro-life movement."

"I would use the word 'rescue' in the title somewhere and 'civil disobedience' in the description," Darnel responded on Sept. 13. "Not too many people understand what is meant by 'direct action,' but the idea of deliberately breaking the law is sexy."

Both Handy and Darnel posted the meeting invite on the Facebook pages of several groups whose members they thought might be interested in attending, among them the Hometown Pro-Life Action and NoVa (Northern Virginia) Republicans.

On Sept. 18, Handy posted a screenshot on her private Facebook page of a graphic she was making for her presentation in the meeting. Titled "A Balance of Principles," it shows that Handy considers "rescue" to be a sweet spot between "physical intervention" and "violence."

The Zoom meeting took place on Sept. 25. It's unknown who attended or what exactly was said. What is clear, though, is that sometime during the following week, Handy called the Washington Surgi-Clinic. She told a receptionist that her name was Hazel Jenkins and she needed an abortion. The clinic scheduled her for 9 a.m. on Oct. 22.

"Say, if you can make time to come here the morning of Thursday the 22 [sic]," Darnel Facebook-messaged a Florida-based anti-abortion activist named James Kershner on Oct. 2. "Kind of big event."

Kershner obviously understood "kind of big event" to mean a clinic invasion and/or blockade.

"I would like to go," he responded, "but I would prefer to stay out on the sidewalk."

Assembling the Team

Joan Andrews Bell is known as "St. Joan" within the anti-abortion extremist community. Now in her mid-70s, she has been arrested more than 120 times for anti-abortion crimes, believes that it's "justifiable homicide" to murder abortion providers and, along with her husband, Chris Bell, employed James Charles Kopp at their New Jersey Good Counsel Home for women with "crisis pregnancies" shortly before he shot and killed Dr. Barnett Slepian, a New York OB-GYN who performed abortions.

On Oct. 7, Handy spoke with and texted both Bell and Darnel by phone. Over the next two weeks, she would speak or text with Bell 22 more times and with Darnel 41 more times.

On Oct. 13, Handy reached out via Facebook Messenger to Michael New, an assistant professor of social research at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Publicly, New focuses on anti-abortion policy; his studies have been published by the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council. But privately, New clearly supports so-called "direct action."

"Hey, the rescue is on October 22nd and I'm getting an Airbnb ... for two nights," Handy wrote to New. "I was wondering if you or someone you know could help me supplement the cost. Our plans for [the] 21st are to sidewalk counsel outside the Planned Parenthood ... and then go [to] the ACB [Amy Coney Barrett] hearings."

"I will help out with a donation," New responded, and sent $100 to a group run by Handy called Mercy Missions.

Soon thereafter Handy paid $118.07 through Airbnb for a place to stay in northeast D.C. from Oct. 21 to 23.

By Oct. 16, Handy had communicated with several extremists in several states.

"Yo," she Facebook-messaged Darnel that day. "Will, Matt and Patty want to risk arrest. Also, Joan has two people who might risk arrest. ... I'm calling Heather and seeing if there's any updates from her because I think she's been trying to get people to block."

Heather Idoni is a 50-something, anti-vaxxer, COVID-denying, anti-abortion extremist who owns a used bookstore in Linden, Mich. An inveterate "rescuer," she long believed that the Lord had delivered her from having to contend with the legal consequences of the FACE Act. Idoni's personal hero is Joan Bell. As soon as she heard that Bell would be participating in the Washington, D.C., clinic invasion, she was determined to participate too-and to bring others with her.

About six months earlier, Idoni had met Davis, the young woman who ultimately became a witness for the prosecution. Each had been protesting at a Michigan abortion clinic. They quickly developed what both describe as a mother-daughter relationship and began "rescuing" together. After learning that Bell was going to be participating, Idoni excitedly contacted Davis to invite her to come along to Washington, D.C. Davis made arrangements to attend.

By Oct. 20, at least 19 people had committed to participating in the action at the Washington Surgi-Clinic, most of them by blockading. That day, Handy texted Herb Geraghty, an anti-abortion extremist in his mid-20s coming from Pittsburgh for the invasion. "Honestly, it's so mind-blowing and we have more people leaning toward blocking. Joan [Bell] is taking my place to block because she wanted me on the outside to organize. I agreed because I respect her judgment."

Also on the 20th, Darnel forwarded Handy a private Facebook message from someone identified only as "Cyndie" during the trials.

"Dear Lauren, we are very excited about having you and the rescuers over tomorrow," Cyndie wrote. "It is my privilege to open up the home for this group. ... I want to be a blessing to you."

She offered to get the group pizza, then signed off, "Love you, sweetie."

At the trials, Davis testified that on the evening of Oct. 21, a planning meeting for the invasion took place at the home of "a pastor and his wife" located near Washington, D.C. On social media, Darnel refers to only one "Cyndie." She is Cyndie Kronz, the wife of Ron Kronz, pastor of the Street Church in Washington, D.C. Their home is in the D.C. area.

The Secret Pre-Invasion Meeting

Handy led the meeting. She explained to the group that she'd made a fake appointment at the clinic. This would require its staff to open the facility's door for her. When they did, the other extremists could push their way in behind her. Someone in the group discussed the clinic layout at length so the group could more effectively prevent patients from receiving abortion care.

Handy also carefully went over the potential "cost" of physically impeding access to the clinic. Anyone who did would almost certainly be arrested. Most likely they would be charged only with trespassing, but they could wind up with a FACE Act prosecution. That would land them in federal prison.

The group went on to discuss what roles could be played in the invasion and what tactics could be used to prolong it for as long as possible-in order to prevent as many abortions as possible. They ranged from "engaging police" (for example, getting them to talk about their feelings about abortion) to "locking and blocking" to going limp when the police attempted to arrest them. Veterans said that "the Holy Spirit" would lead them in their actions.

Handy or Darnel asked for a show of hands of those willing to risk arrest. About a dozen people volunteered-among them all the defendants in this case.

The Invasion

Sasha Proctor (a pseudonym used at trial) is a medical assistant at the Washington Surgi-Clinic. On Oct. 22, she arrived at work shortly before 9 a.m. and noticed something most people wouldn't give a moment's thought: The fire-escape door was ajar.

Proctor told the clinic's administrator, Tina Smith (a pseudonym). Smith immediately went to investigate and saw a dozen or so people gathered in the stairwell. She told them they shouldn't be there and that she would be calling law enforcement. Back in the clinic, she called the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, then the FBI. She told both she was concerned that the clinic was about to be invaded.

While Smith made those calls, Proctor went to an office to watch the live feed from a hallway security camera. It was now 9 a.m., and she saw patients waiting to enter. But the people who'd been in the stairwell were now also in the hallway.

"I cracked ... the door first to kind of squeeze in the patients," Proctor told the court.

She was able to get a couple in, then she tried to close the door on the others in the hall. "But they started pushing back," Proctor said.

A nurse came to help reinforce the door. It was impossible. About half a dozen anti-abortion extremists poured into the waiting room. One, a man in his mid-40s named Jay Smith, pushed the nurse, causing her to sprain her ankle. Two others-Bell and Paulette Harlow, both in their 70s-were wearing bike locks around their necks. They started moving waiting room chairs in front of the door leading to the clinic's medical procedure area. Another carried in a large duffel bag. Jean Marshall, also in her mid-70s, took chains that were in the duffel and began using them to secure Bell, Harlow and John Hinshaw, in his 60s, together in front of the door to the medical area.

In the hallway, Idoni and William Goodman, in his 50s, stood in front of the clinic's staff entrance. Geraghty took up a position in the hallway outside the waiting room. Davis took the place she'd been assigned: in an elevator that patients needed to use to reach the fourth-floor clinic.

"I was supposed to talk to any who pressed on the fourth floor [elevator button] ... to try to talk them out of it, offer them help and loudly tell them my beliefs," Davis told the court.

Meanwhile, Handy and Darnel moved around the premises. Handy directed protesters on the first floor-both inside and outside the building-on where to go and what to do, updated the blockaders on the fourth floor on what was happening with law enforcement and "engaged" with police when they arrived. Darnel, meanwhile, walked around the building with his phone on a selfie stick, livestreaming the blockade.

"For only the third time in 25 years, pro-lifers are physically blocking the doors of an abortion clinic," Darnel said.

If only that were true: In 2018, just two years prior to these events, more than 9 percent of clinics responded to the Feminist Majority Foundation's National Clinic Violence Survey that they had been blockaded; nearly 7 percent reported that they'd experienced a facility invasion. National Abortion Federation data shows that there have been more than 6,000 clinic obstructions in the past decade.

"This is very risky for the rescuers," Darnel added.

The Patients Bear the Brunt

Shampy Holler was obviously in extreme pain when she, helped by her husband, exited the elevator on the fourth floor. They tried to enter the clinic waiting room but were blocked by extremists.

In the fourth month of her pregnancy, the couple had learned that something was terribly wrong with the fetus. If she carried to term, the baby they desperately wanted would not survive birth. The couple consulted with three doctors in Ohio, where they lived.

Holler, who'd emigrated to the U.S. from India just three years earlier, learned she would have to leave the state to terminate the pregnancy; at the time, later-term abortions were unobtainable in Ohio. The Hollers were forced to travel to Washington, D.C.

Oct. 22 was the last day of the three-day procedure Holler required. For all intents and purposes, when she arrived at the clinic that morning, Holler was in labor-hard labor.

"There's no abortions being performed here today," Geraghty told the couple.

Holler slumped and fell to the floor. Police officers arrived on the scene.

They asked Idoni to leave the clinic.

Around this time, Handy posted to her Facebook page: "Traditional lock-and-block rescue happening right now. We have 10 people acting as human shields to prevent our pre-born siblings from being killed."

Another patient, Ashley Jones (a pseudonym), exited the elevator. Somehow she managed to get past Geraghty and enter the clinic's waiting room.

Inside, Bell, Harlow and Hinshaw-in the chairs they pulled in front of the door to the medical area, and secured together with the locks and chains Marshall had wound around them-along with Jay Smith, were praying loudly, singing hymns and yelling vicious things.

Smith: "We just want you to know that if you die during your abortion procedure, you might wake up in a place you don't want to be!"

Harlow: "I love you, Mommy. Please don't kill me. I love you, Mommy. Please don't kill me. Please don't kill me!"

Bell: "We pray that you never have to suffer ... in purgatory for eternal life!"

Jones went to try to speak with Proctor, the medical assistant, who was behind a window at the receptionist's desk. But Marshall and some of the others kept jumping in front her, yelling at her and trying to distract her.

Two police officers entered the waiting area. Assessing the situation, they decided that they would need to get a breach kit (a set of tools police use to cut locks, break chains and open doorways) to get any patients into the facility. Meanwhile, Idoni kept blocking Jones from getting to the reception window.

Jones, the patient who managed to make her way into the waiting room, sobbed to the police officer.

"What are they doing to me? I need to go [in]!" she cried.

He couldn't yet help her. And all the while, Idoni was accosting Jones.

Finally, Jones maneuvered around her, grabbed a chair, stood on it, pulled herself on top of the counter between the waiting room and reception desk, and flung herself inside.

The Aftermath

Despite Darnel's claim that this was only the third blockade in a quarter century, the anti-abortion extremists leading the Washington Surgi-Center invasion knew that the police would give warnings before arresting anyone. After several police arrived, Handy told Darnel to tell anyone who didn't want to get arrested to leave the building. About half a dozen exited, and the police got out their breach kit. Several of the extremists went limp. Police had to carry Bell out in a wheelchair.

It's unclear what crimes metropolitan police charged the blockaders with. What is certain is that the blockaders didn't do much, if any, time. Idoni was posting on Facebook the next day.

After the incursion at the Washington Surgi-Clinic, its main players continued to invade abortion clinics throughout the country. It was part and parcel of a dramatic increase in clinic harassment and violence during the Trump administration.

From 2016 and 2020:

  • The number of reported trespassing incidents increased from 247 to 1,265.

  • The number of reported obstructions rose from 580 to 2,712.

  • The number of reported assaults rose from 36 to 54.

Since the Trump administration didn't prosecute a single criminal FACE case to conclusion, anti-abortion extremists had every reason to believe they'd face few consequences for their crimes. But the FACE Act has a five-year statute of limitations.

In March 2022, the Department of Justice announced indictments for the Washington Surgi-Clinic invasion. It has since announced more than a dozen other prosecutions under the FACE Act. Idoni has been indicted in two others-one in Tennessee and one in Michigan. She faces a total of 33 years in prison.

Such tough criminal penalties for blocking access to reproductive healthcare have raised the ire of the political right. In fall 2023, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced bills to repeal the FACE Act in Congress. But the Washington Surgi-Clinic blockaders might not have to hold out hope for a legislative reprieve.

On Sept. 15, 2023, former President Donald Trump spoke at the annual Pray Vote Stand Summit. Though his remarks were devoid of many details about his governing plans if reelected, he did say this: "As many of you have heard, two weeks ago in an outrageous attack on Christians everywhere, the Stalinists in the Biden administration ... got a Washington, D.C., jury to convict ... pro-life activists who are now facing up to 11 years in prison. ... To reverse these travesties of justice, tonight I'm announcing that the moment I win the election I will appoint a special task force to rapidly review the cases of every political prisoner who's been unjustly persecuted by the Biden administration.

"I can ... sign their pardons or commutations on day one."

Amanda Robb wrote this article for Ms. Magazine.

Amanda Robb wrote this article for Ms. Magazine.

Disclosure: Ms. Magazine contributes to our fund for reporting. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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