Nine people who blocked access to an abortion clinic in Washington in October 2020 have been charged with federal civil rights offenses, prosecutors said on Wednesday, about six months after the Justice Department signaled it would use a 1994 law to prosecute such cases across the country.
Prosecutors said the nine had used their bodies, furniture, chains and ropes to block clinic doors and had livestreamed their actions on Facebook.
In an indictment returned by a federal grand jury, the nine defendants were charged with engaging in a conspiracy to prevent the clinic from providing reproductive health services and to prevent patients from receiving those services, prosecutors said.
They were also charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that makes it a crime to threaten, obstruct or injure a person seeking access to a reproductive health clinic or to damage clinic property.
If convicted, the defendants would each face up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release and fines of $350,000, prosecutors said.
In September, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland signaled that the department would use the FACE Act to protect the constitutional right to abortion, days after a Texas law enacting a near-complete ban on the procedure went into effect.
“We will not tolerate violence against those seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services, physical obstruction or property damage in violation of the FACE Act,” Mr. Garland said at the time, adding that the Justice Department had reached out to U.S. attorneys’ offices and F.B.I. field offices across the country to discuss enforcement.
Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University College of Law, and a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, said the FACE Act had fallen into disuse during the Trump administration, leading to criticism from abortion rights supporters that it had become a “paper tiger” that was encouraging more aggressive actions outside abortion clinics.
“It is significant that they’re actually using the FACE Act again in a fairly prominent way,” Professor Ziegler said, adding that the charges send a signal to those who would block clinics that “there will be consequences as long as Biden is in office.”
The indictment was announced as the Supreme Court weighs a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion, and as Republican-led states have enacted laws that seek to make abortion illegal in as many circumstances as possible.
In court papers, federal prosecutors did not identify the clinic in Washington that was blocked on Oct. 22, 2020.
The blockade was directed by Lauren Handy, 28, of Alexandria, Va., who called the clinic days before and made a 9 a.m. appointment for reproductive services under the name “Hazel Jenkins,” prosecutors said.
Seven other defendants then traveled to Washington from other states. Just before the clinic opened that morning, Ms. Handy, who had chains and ropes in a duffel bag, approached a medical specialist in the hallway and said she was “Hazel Jenkins,” there for an appointment, prosecutors said.
Soon after, Jonathan Darnel, 40, of Arlington, Va., who was outside the clinic, created a Facebook event called, “No one dies today,” prosecutors said.
When the clinic opened and the medical specialist unlocked the doors, Ms. Handy and other defendants “forcefully pushed” through the clinic door into the waiting room, prosecutors said in court papers.
One of the defendants who backed into the clinic caused a nurse to stumble and sprain her ankle, prosecutors said.
Inside the waiting room, the defendants moved chairs to block a door to a treatment area and then sat in the chairs and chained and roped themselves together, prosecutors said.
The State of Abortion in the U.S.
When a patient arrived, the defendants blocked her from entering the treatment area, prosecutors said.
“We have people intervening physically with their bodies to prevent women from entering the clinic to murder their children,” Mr. Darnel said on a Facebook livestream, according to court papers.
After Mr. Darnel entered the building, and recorded people blocking the entrance, he said on the livestream that the “rescuers are doing their job. They’re not allowing women to enter the abortion clinic,” according to court papers. It was not immediately clear if Mr. Darnel had a lawyer.
Terrisa Bukovinac, the founder and executive director of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, identified Ms. Handy as the group’s director of activism and said that Ms. Handy was represented by a lawyer at the Thomas More Society, who did not immediately respond to an email.
Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising seeks to mobilize anti-abortion activists for “direct action,” according to its website.
“Rescuers like Lauren and the other eight defendants are inspiring a whole new generation of leaders and activists to overcome their fears of sanctions and to take heroic direct action on behalf of the unborn,” Ms. Bukovinac said in a statement. “Civil rights activists have historically engaged in direct action tactics to bring about justice for the oppressed.”
Dr. Laura Meyers, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., thanked prosecutors for bringing charges and said “the health and safety of our employees and patients is paramount.”
“We are deeply grateful that the Justice Department took decisive action against those who, for far too long, have sought to intimidate and menace our patients and staff,” she said in a statement. “Our community deserves access to health care free of obstruction and intimidation.”