It’s been a federal crime for nearly 30 years to intimidate or interfere with any person trying 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 are now stoking a false narrative about a supposed war against the religious right.
It started with prominent 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 would be a clear violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a 1994 law that makes it a federal crime to use force or the threat of force to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person trying to obtain or provide reproductive health care services.
Earlier this week, 11 anti-choice protesters were arrested on the same 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 employee from entering. The group in Tennessee openly acknowledged what they were doing was a crime when one protester told the rest: “If you’re not planning on being arrested, do not sit in front of the door,” according to the indictment.
But to hear many prominent 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 about the Houck arrest. The hosts of “Fox & Friends” posited the minister’s arrest was the start of “the weaponization of the DOJ and the FBI” for Biden’s pro-choice purposes.
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 about the FBI arresting a man Friday in rural Pennsylvania are true, then you have a lot to answer for,” and later promised on Twitter that if Republicans take control in Congress next year, there will be public investigations into the matter.
As for the Tennessee indictments, “It’s a rampage by Garland. This is getting ugly,” tweeted one prominent 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 just two examples of a nationwide network of activists who have, for decades, engaged in a campaign of intimidation that aims to block people from obtaining basic health care. The sudden conservative storm around the arrests has played fast and loose with the facts around both cases, and has the feel of a campaign, emboldened by the fall of Roe, that seeks to normalize obstruction to reproductive services.
There is something notable about the Tennessee arrests, compared to most FACE Act violations charged over the past decade. Every FACE Act prosecution prior to this year also involved an underlying crime: a mass shooting, a bombing, vandalization, destruction of property, or bomb and death threats. But the Tennessee protestors, as well as nine people involved in a similar protest in Washington, D.C., who were charged earlier this year, were indicted straightforwardly for obstructing access to clinics absent any underlying violence or illegal threat.
The arrests mark an escalation in the increasingly fraught battleground in front of clinics, which has often had deadly consequences.
Between 1977 and 2020, anti-abortion activists committed at least 11 murders, 26 attempted murders, 956 threats of harm or death, 624 stalking incidents and four kidnappings, according to an analysis from the National Abortion Federation. Anti-choice protesters have bombed 42 abortion clinics, set fire to 194, attempted to bomb or burn an additional 104 and made 667 bomb threats in that same time period.
Houck, 48, was arrested for two incidents that took place outside of Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center on the same day last October. His alleged victim was a 72-year-old clinic escort, referred to throughout court documents as B.L., and who was trying to escort two patients exiting the Planned Parenthood when Houck shoved the volunteer to the ground, according to the indictment. In the second incident, the indictment states that Houck “verbally confronted B.L. and forcefully shoved B.L. to the ground … causing injuries to B.L. that required medical attention.” It notes that B.L. was wearing a bright-orange vest that identified him or her as a patient escort.
Some conservative outlets reported that the volunteer escort only mentioned being shoved by Houck once in a prior criminal complaint, although the federal indictment alleges there were two incidents.
If convicted, Houck faces a maximum sentence of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release and fines up to $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 other four Tennessee protesters face up to one year in prison and fines up to $10,000.
“Assault is always a serious offense, and under the FACE Act, if the victim is targeted because of their association with a reproductive healthcare clinic, it is a federal crime,” U.S. Attorney Jaqueline Romero said in the DOJ’s press release about Houck’s arrest. “Our Office and the Department of Justice are committed to prosecuting crimes which threaten the safety and rights of all individuals.”
Houck often stood outside of the health center for hours, and tried to talk patients into going to the crisis pregnancy center located next door, Lindsey Mauldin, an employee of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania who oversees security at the clinic, told HuffPost. The minister and father of seven touts himself as a “sidewalk counselor” and drives to Philadelphia once a 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 a week since the initial incident in October 2021, said Mauldin. Although, she noted, Houck has not been at the clinic since his arrest as he is legally prohibited from being anywhere near Planned Parenthood clinic while the case is ongoing.
“We stay in touch with the police because it makes us nervous but he is 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 very large knife on his person while he’s outside, which of course is a tactic to try to scare patients and security.”
Conservatives don’t seem 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 child “your dad’s a fag.” Ryan-Marie Houck said her husband told the clinic escort to stop speaking to his son, but “he kept doing it and kind of came into [the son’s] personal space.” That’s when, she says, Houck pushed the volunteer away and he fell to the ground.
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 may have been up to 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 “in line with standard practices.”
When reached for comment, Houck’s attorney Peter Breen directed HuffPost to an earlier statement, which didn’t go so far as to say there was a SWAT team present. “This case is being brought solely to intimidate people of faith and pro-life Americans,” Breen said last month. “ … In threatening form, after nearly breaking down the family’s front door, at least five agents pointed guns at Mark and arrested him in front of his wife and seven young children, who were terrified that their husband and father would be shot dead before their eyes.”
Houck’s disruptive presence outside the clinic — which eventually, according to the indictment, escalated to assaults — is part of a broader anti-choice tactic stretching back decades. 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 appear to be clear violations of that 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 entrance 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 come to the clinic and help “stop as many murderous appointments as we can,” according to the indictment.
Another protester asked a patient if she was “trying to come to the abortion mill.” When the patient walked away, the protester “encouraged one of his children” to approach her. The group livestreamed the patient speaking with an employee, and told the livestream audience she was a “mom coming to kill her baby,” according to the indictment. The patient and a clinic employee were barred from entering the health facility.
In both cases, providers of reproductive services welcomed the federal assistance in keeping patients and clinics safe.
“The FACE Act was put into place to protect patients for this very reason,” said Mauldin, the Planned Parenthood employee who oversees security at the Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center. “Patients entering into our facilities already have to jump through a number of hoops to be able to access sexual and reproductive health care and Mr. Houck has been a longtime proponent of standing in 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 try to stop someone from having an abortion. What we’ve seen is just that.”
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