Visitors to the offices of the Silver Spring Gynecology and Family Planning clinic are allowed to bring one support person to their abortion appointments. Kristin Turner, who scheduled an appointment for the first slot of the day on January 21, brought about a dozen.
Only one of her friends stood next to her as Turner buzzed the intercom. The two women waited, looking back and forth between the two surveillance cameras outside the clinic door. Six more pro-life activists, recruited to a direct action by Progressive Anti-abortion Uprising, were huddled in a driver’s ed school just down the hallway of the Maryland office complex. They had all come for a Red Rose Rescue, an attempt to non-violently occupy an abortion clinic.
The proposition is simple—for as long as they are present and trespassing, no abortions will be performed. Each delayed or cancelled procedure is the chance to save a life.
Progressive Anti-abortion Uprising (PAAU) takes its inspiration from the conservative-leaning Operation Rescue movement of the 1990s and, also, the civil rights and environmental protestors who led sit-ins and blocked bulldozers with their bodies. Each movement involves taking direct action to oppose injustice, and each requires nothing more complicated than a willingness to enter a contested space and refuse to leave.
Civil rights protestors who sat in at lunch counters occupied a space in order to claim a space for themselves. Nothing in their own actions was disruptive—they sat down and asked to purchase food. It was rather the dramatic contrast between their calm, polite behaviour and the extreme and violent reactions to their presence that revealed the terms of their truth. The aim of these occupation protests was to open the space.
Environmental protestors who set up camp in trees and lie down in front of bulldozers occupy a space in order to preserve it for others. They occupy a space first in alliance with the flora and fauna that have always been there. The restored ecological relationship—even if only visual and symbolic—recasts the construction company and the loggers: They are the intruder.
The aim of a Red Rose Rescue is to enter a space in order to close it.
Each movement involves taking direct action to oppose injustice, and each requires nothing more complicated than a willingness to enter a contested space and refuse to leave.
By Lauren Handy’s estimate, she has been inside abortion facilities across thirty-two states. She is the director of activism for PAAU, and spoke to me from her flip phone. (Her smartphone was still in the possession of the FBI.) She took inspiration for her Red Rose Rescues from the example of Canadian pro-life activist Mary Wagner, who had been entering clinics and handing out roses for years. Handy began in 2017 as outside support to older activists, but by her second visit with a Red Rose Rescue team, she was entering clinics too. Soon, she was inviting a friend to come along with her for a Christmas clinic intervention by saying, “You sing Christmas carols, I’ll pass out Christmas gifts, we’ll leave before the cops come.”
Part of the strategy of Red Rose Rescue was to sidestep the stepped-up penalties of the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act. Handy sees the 1994 FACE Act as what spelled the end of the first Rescue movement. “The risks were too high, people hadn’t ordered their lives around it.” The twentysomethings who travelled in the thousands to Wichita and Buffalo in the early 1990s and were arrested by the hundreds began to marry and have children. It was hard to commit to jail at all, let alone for the six to eighteen months allowed for non-violent clinic obstruction. When Handy was in the waiting room with roses, she was definitely trespassing, but she wasn’t technically blocking an entrance, a distinction that might limit how long she’d be jailed.
But the more times she entered clinics, the harder she found it to leave. At one Red Rose Rescue that Handy carried out in Silver Spring, Maryland, Handy was being detained just outside the clinic by police and watched a woman enter the clinic she had just left. While Handy was still in custody, she could hear the whirrrr of a vacuum aspiration machine through the clinic wall. It went silent; the abortion was complete. “I’ve never been that close to someone being murdered,” Handy said.
At another direct action, she saw another rescuer lock himself in a bathroom to delay his arrest. The police brought in a SWAT team to get into the stall and shut down the entire street. The chaos meant the clinic had to cancel the full day of procedures. Other pro-lifers stayed outside the clinic, trying to intercept patients who lost their appointments and direct them to a crisis pregnancy centre next door.
The team of volunteers assembled for the Red Rose Rescue attempt that I observed split responsibilities similarly. Of the dozen or so activists who assembled at the rallying point near the clinic, only about half planned to try to enter and occupy the clinic. The rest planned to wait outside, to pray and to try to talk to any women arriving for appointments.
Mallory, who had come to the March for Life from Charlotte, North Carolina, chose to stay outside. She volunteered as a sidewalk counsellor in her home state, but the design of the clinic she kept vigil at made it hard to make contact with anyone entering. Unlike the Maryland office park, where patients would have to enter through a shared lobby, the clinic she prayed at was set up so that mothers only exited their cars once they were through the secured gate. Still, she felt, there was an intimacy she could offer with her presence, even for people who might see her for just a moment.
“When the cars stop,” she told me, “sometimes it’s because they see a black woman is out there.” The women who come to the clinic for procedures are predominantly black, and seeing Mallory sometimes makes them pause, open a window, and accept some of the literature on alternatives to abortion that she passes out. Still, she doesn’t know if any of those cars ever turn around and go home with exactly as many heartbeats inside as when they stop by her stretch of sidewalk.
The same action, on the other side of the door, transformed from conversation to crime.
For Lindsay, who chose to go into the building and planned to help occupy the clinic, her mind was made up by her mother’s own experience with abortion. When Lindsay was in her early teens, her mother told her about her lost sibling. It was an experience that her mother made clear she regretted, and Lindsay grieved for the sibling she never knew. That experience had shaped Lindsay’s choice to work at a crisis pregnancy centre, and to try to enter an abortion clinic with PAAU.
“I’m nervous to go inside,” she told me as she got into her hiding place in the empty driver’s ed school, “but the babies have to go in. Why would I be scared to go in when the babies have to go in?”
While the secondary wave of protestors was getting into position, Turner and Olivia Cowin prepared to approach the door. The two women rode up together in the elevator. They touched hands and prayed a Hail Mary as the elevator juddered up to the third floor. “It’s just sidewalk counselling inside,” Cowin repeated to herself.
The same action, on the other side of the door, transformed from conversation to crime. But it also made the attempt newsworthy in a way prayer vigils outside a clinic are not. In “Unruly Arguments: The Body Rhetoric of Earth First!, Act Up, and Queer Nation,” his 1999 paper in Argument and Advocacy, Kevin Michael DeLuca, a professor at the University of Utah, examines direct-action strategies of physical presence as resistance. In DeLuca’s analysis, the strategy of protest through presence is particularly powerful for groups outside the mainstream. He writes,
As radical groups questioning societal orthodoxies, they can expect news organizations to frame them negatively as disrupters of the social order. These groups are in hostile territory with little control. What they do have some control over, however, is the presentation of their bodies in the image events that attract media attention. Their bodies, then, become not merely flags to attract attention for the argument but the site and substance of the argument itself.
The resistance strategies of Earth First! relied on letting the vulnerability of their own bodies stand in for the vulnerability of the ecosystem they aimed to protect. By lying down in front of a bulldozer, they forced a logging company to make their harms visible. Instead of doing damage to a fragile but invisible web of interspecies dependence, the bulldozer’s first violent act would have to be bloody and visceral.
Protesters built sleeping platforms in trees, so that the trunk could not be felled without endangering their life. Others worked with accomplices to be buried in the logging roads, with only their head above ground. As DeLuca writes, “In the road blockade, the protester buried in the earth becomes the earth. He adopts a ground level view of the world. People and equipment tower over him. He is immobile and must be spoon fed.”
It becomes impossible to cover the protest without making visible the abjection that protestors are willing to endure for the sake of what they want to protect. Even people who oppose their cause are likely to be brought up short by the stark vulnerability of the man buried in the road.
The pro-life movement has adopted this tactic in their approach to sidewalk counselling. In 40 Days for Life, by David Bereit and Shawn Carney, the two founders share stories from sustained prayer vigils outside abortion clinics across the nation. A repeated theme is compassion expressed through willingness to suffer.
Bereit shares a story from Mark of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who initially decided to spend his shift in his car due to heavy rain. After all, God could hear him just as well warm and dry. But when another volunteer showed up and stood on the sidewalk, getting soaked under a flimsy umbrella, Mark reluctantly joined him.
After a period of waiting and shivering, they saw a young family head into the Planned Parenthood, but not long after the woman came out and ran over to them. She told Mark and his companion that her husband wanted the abortion, and she had been asking God for a sign not to go through with it. When she saw them standing outside, she saw them as suffering for her sake.
In Carney’s own experience, his weakness was what opened doors. When he was keeping vigil in heavy rain, it was an abortion worker from the clinic who came out to him, worried for his safety. “I was 19, she could have been my mom,” he told me. “She said ‘You shouldn’t be out there.’”
But it’s hard to hope that the people you oppose will see you as suffering for their sake when they also fear you. Both the pro-life and the environmentalist movement are entangled with factions open to violent resistance.
Earth First! buried their own bodies in logging roads, but they also hid metal spikes inside trees. The spikes could foul logging or milling saws, breaking them, and possibly causing them to rebound and severely injure or kill a worker.
It’s hard to hope that the people you oppose will see you as suffering for their sake when they also fear you.
In remarks to the Washington Post in 1990, Dave Foreman, the co-founder of Earth First!, disclaimed responsibility for any subsequent injuries. “The purpose of tree spiking is not to hurt anybody; it’s to keep trees from being cut,” Foreman said. His logic was simple—by spiking trees, he and his compatriots were not directly harming workers. They would be perfectly safe . . . as long as they didn’t try to cut down any trees. Foreman favoured marking areas of the forest that had been spiked.
PAAU doesn’t embrace any similarly dangerous methods of resistance, but they embrace Operation Rescue’s slogan “If you believe abortion is murder, act like it’s murder.” For those who don’t share their commitment to non-violence, that exhortation can sound like a reason to stop doing sit-ins and start shooting. When Red Rose Rescuers go to court, they rely on a “necessity” defence to trespassing—that it is sometimes permissible to break the law for the sake of stopping a greater crime. Some members of the pro-life movement have been willing to break bigger laws for this reason.
The most recent lethal attack on an abortion provider was carried out by Robert Lewis Dear Jr. in 2015 in Colorado Springs. Dear shot at several people outside the clinic, then forced his way inside and held off law enforcement at gunpoint. While firing inside the clinic, he shot through a wall and injured one person hiding in lockdown. Ultimately, he killed three people and injured eight more before being taken into custody. Since 2015, there have been several arson attacks on abortion facilities, but none, according to National Abortion Federation’s database, that resulted in injury. In the aftermath of the Dobbs decision, several pregnancy resource centres were firebombed by a pro-choice group calling itself Jane’s Revenge. The attacks all took place at night, when no one would be on the premises. Jane’s Revenge issued statements threatening an escalation in violence, but so far that has not occurred.
PAAU tries to make it clear they are part of a non-violent demonstration. They put petite women at the front; activists carry roses to give to mothers in the waiting room. The more they’ve carried out Red Rose Rescues, the more their genre of protest has become recognizable to clinic workers. But still, the first movement of their form of protest is a mass of bodies rushing through the door, struggling to keep the door open and flood the clinic with as many activists as possible.
The door in Silver Spring does not open at all. Not for Turner, not for any patient that day. Not long after PAAU arrives, and the contingent outside begins to hold up signs, two police cars show up. While the activists stay hidden, I walk through the hallways and find a man with a compact build talking to one of the officers.
When I introduce myself as a journalist, the man says he is a clinic defender and that he isn’t permitted to be quoted by name, as a condition of his work with the National Abortion Federation to help clinics detect and deflect threats.
He’s a little unsure about what the clinic’s status is this morning. Anticipating possible direct actions to coincide with the March for Life, the staff had gone back and forth on whether it was worth having a procedure day that would coincide with an influx of activists. The National Abortion Federation affiliates monitor potential protests and attacks. The clinic defender was able to learn about the PAAU direct action before the protestors arrived. As would be revealed in later court proceedings, an FBI informant was present at the PAAU planning meeting. The defender on site believes the clinic made a late call to close—late enough that he didn’t know when he arrived. Turner didn’t receive a call cancelling her pretextual appointment.
That didn’t leave him with too much to do as he and the cop idled by the elevator bank. The protestors were silently huddled one door down. He was willing to walk me through what training the clinic employees receive to prepare for a clinic invasion. The hardest moments are the initial inrushing of activists. No matter how many flowers they bring, it’s impossible to know in the first moments of chaos and struggles at the door what the protestors are there to do.
Once the situation stabilizes a little, if a patient hasn’t yet arrived, and a clinician is in a safe enough place to use the phone, the protocol is to begin calling to cancel appointments. They don’t want women to walk into a volatile situation unprepared. But if there are women who were already in the waiting room when protestors arrived, the clinic defender explains, “we try to give advice to those patients from an empowerment position.” When I ask what that means, he clarifies: “We tell them if they leave they’ll lose their appointment.”
In this, the clinic shares the assessment of the protestors—if a woman leaves her abortion appointment, she might not come back. A woman might take the cancellation as a sign to listen to misgivings; she might be past this clinic’s cut-off of seventeen weeks before she can come back; or she might just not be able to get time off work or child care again.
The clinic defender doesn’t believe PAAU’s promises to engage non-violently or offer alternatives. “I believe they hide behind civil disobedience,” he says. “If someone came into your home and did the same thing, how would you feel?” When I bring those concerns up with Handy, she reiterates their attempts to make it obvious how they engage, and that she believes many clinics are familiar with their tactics and overall look. And in the end, for her, it comes down to a simple question: “Do I not do what I need to do because a collaborator to murder is going to get upset? The only thing I can do is control my own actions.”
It’s a hard balance to strike—flowers held out as gifts, hands pressing back against a closing door. Even the use of a fake patient and a fake appointment is, in some way, an erosion of the kind of trust that doctors and patients rely on. The fruit of that distrust is built into the clinic set-up—two cameras, a buzzer for the door, possibly one more door inside, just like an airlock, in order to keep the clinic disjoint from the activists who want to enter.
What PAAU’s tactics most remind me of is the approach to direct action taken by Mario Savio. Savio was a civil rights activist who helped register black voters as part of the Freedom Summer actions in 1964. Back at Berkeley, he and other student activists chafed under their school’s ban on political organizing and fundraising. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was preparing to occupy Sproul Hall, and on December 2, 1964, Savio laid out the case for their direct action.
Here, he wasn’t protesting a single law by violating it. Instead, Savio explained, “The form of the law is such as to render impossible its effective violation as a method to have it repealed. Sometimes, the grievances of people [extend] to more than just the law, extend to . . . a whole mode of arbitrary exercise of arbitrary power.”
“That brings me to the second mode of civil disobedience,” Savio continued. “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus—and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it—that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!”
He made it clear that he was still calling for a non-violent approach to protest, even as he prepared his fellow students to charge the building and occupy its offices. “That doesn’t mean that you have to break anything. One thousand people sitting down some place, not letting anybody by, not [letting] anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine! And it will stop!”
A sit-in can offer resistance by simply embodying a “No,” as Savio saw it. Injustice requires our passive cooperation, and simply withdrawing that assent can be enough to stop the machine. Strategies of passive resistance flip the weight of inertia. If the machine can pause, even for a moment, it isn’t natural and it isn’t inevitable. By simply laying enough bodies down, protestors demand that the people they oppose make an active, visible choice to keep the machine turning.
In February of 2023, Handy went to Long Island to watch three other Red Rose Rescuers stand trial for a direct action in Manhasset, New York. For the most part, the trial turned on fairly dry facts—were the protestors trespassing? Yes. Did their acts of trespass constitute obstruction? Also yes, ultimately in the view of the jury.
Laura Gies, one of the protestors, was asked why she had offered passive resistance, refusing to cooperate with police when instructed to leave, ultimately going limp and forcing officers to carry her body. Her answer wasn’t just a matter of tactics and maximizing time disrupting the clinic, but one of solidarity. She chose to be carried out, she said, “because the bodies of the babies killed by abortion must also be carried out.” Gies’s sentence had not been set at press time. In March, she received a sixty-day jail sentence for a similar action in Michigan.
Handy’s longest jail sentence (as of press time) was thirty-four days for a direct action in Flint, Michigan. She is facing pending charges in several states, and will probably be arrested again after this piece is filed and before it comes out in print.
Handy can’t call an earthquake, but she wants to be prepared to be a comfort in any shattering moment.
Living a life according to the cycle of trespass, arrest, jail means embracing self-emptying. Handy asked Joan Andrews, who has been obstructing clinics since the 1970s, for advice, and Andrews told her, “If you want to be judgement proof, they can’t take away your house, your car, if you don’t have it.” Handy lives below the poverty line, relying on the goodwill of others to shelter and support her. One gift at a time, almost nothing saved for the morrow. From Handy’s point of view, her incarcerations are not an interruption of her rescue work but a continuation of it.
When she goes to jail, she is once again slipping into a secured space. The judge who sends her behind bars may not think of himself as aiding her infiltration mission, but he is her accomplice in getting access to a place and to people she wants to reach.
In jail, word spreads quickly about why she’s there. “People come to you with open curiosity,” Handy says. “It’s the newness, that you chose to be here.” In 2018, when she was jailed overnight after arrest, a woman she had previously spoken to outside a clinic while sidewalk counselling recognized her and sought her out. The woman had gone through with the abortion, but still wanted to talk.
Handy turned to Wagner, one of her mentors from the previous generation of direct action. Wagner had told her about being jailed for nine months, and forming lasting relationships with other women. Wagner’s diocese offered a Bible study for women after abortion, and Wagner, by dint of her conviction, was able to run the program as a peer in prison, when no outside group had access.
Handy looked at the lives of the saints, and how much fruit could be borne by their own time in prison. In the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Silas are jailed in Philippi and pass the time singing hymns and praising God. An earthquake shakes the prison, and the two men are freed from their chains, as is every other prisoner who heard them pray.
The last person to be set free is the jailer, who is not physically bound but is seized by despair and takes up his sword to kill himself. “Don’t harm yourself,” Paul cries out. “We are all here!” (Acts 16:28). Their captor is converted, and brings the men he held home as guests. The jailer’s whole family follows him in baptism and belief.
Handy can’t call an earthquake, but she wants to be prepared to be a comfort in any shattering moment. There’s a hidden groaning in the earth, as blood cries out. Each direct action at a clinic and each day spent in jail is her attempt to give voice to that muffled lament. “How long will you keep doing this?” I asked. “Well, I’m facing a federal trial in August, with a potential penalty of a decade in jail,” Handy answered. “So definitely at least eleven more years.”