Pro-life activist Lauren Handy was sentenced to jail time Tuesday, on trespassing charges stemming from a 2021 “pink rose rescue” at an Alexandria, Virginia, abortion clinic.
While Handy told The Pillar she is eager to organize as an activist behind bars, her sentence points to a resurgence of “rescue” tactics at abortion clinics by some pro-life activists — a once popular approach that fell out of use among most pro-lifers decades ago.
“What you saw today was six people from across the political, ideological, and generational spectrum coming together to save babies, and as a Catholic and progressive myself, I am compelled by my deeply held beliefs (religious and political) to put my body between the oppressed and oppressor,” Handy, director of activism at the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, said in a July 12 statement sent to The Pillar.
The activist was sentenced to 30 days in the Alexandria Detention Center, along with activist Joan Andrews Bell. Four other activists were sentenced to four days in the jail, for their role in a Nov. 16 “pink rose rescue” at the Alexandria Women’s Center.
A pink rose rescue is a form of protest in which pro-life demonstrators enter an abortion clinic, delivering pink roses to women scheduled to undergo abortions, along with information about financial resources and alternatives to abortion.
Activists sometimes refuse to leave clinic waiting rooms, and are sometimes removed by police officers and arrested for trespassing. In this case, the demonstrators were arrested Nov. 16, after they spent more than an hour in the clinic’s waiting room talking with patients, while staff directed them to leave.
It is not yet clear why Handy and Bell were given lengthier sentences than the other demonstrators.
Caroline Smith, PAAU’s media coordinator, told The Pillar that her organization believes rescues are an important part of pro-life advocacy.
“Throughout history, nonviolent action has been an extremely effective way of creating change. And so, through rescue, we are literally putting ourselves between the killer and the children that are signed up to be aborted that day,” Smith explained.
“We see this as an extreme, radical act of love, and we know that where there are radical acts of violence going on, we need to bring a radical act of love.”
“And we do know that at this particular incident in November, there were at least five children that were saved from abortion that day. So for us, that is more than worth it.”
The spokeswoman said the group believes five abortions did not take place on the day of the clinic rescue because “when we do a rescue we talk to the women that are there, and five women did actually leave — did not go into their abortion appointments that day.”
“So just in the span of time that we were in the building, there were at least five women that left because of [the demonstrators’] presence and because of the love that they were bringing into that building.”
The Alexandria Women’s Center could not be reached for comment.
Abortion clinic “rescues” became popular in the 1980s, spearheaded by an organization called Operation Rescue. Initial rescues involved sit-ins at abortion clinics, or blockades in which participants chained themselves inside of abortion clinics or to clinic entrances.
In the late 1980s, thousands of people were arrested annually for participating in rescues, often charged with trespassing and briefly jailed or fined. The movement reached a zenith in 1991, when thousands of pro-life demonstrators traveled to Wichita, Kansas for the “Summer of Mercy,” in which several thousand pro-life advocates were arrested during six weeks of non-violent sit-ins at three abortion clinics.
In 1994, rescue protests mostly came to an end. President Bill Clinton signed into law that year federal “FACE laws” — formally the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act — which set federal prison penalties for impeding access to abortion clinics.
Smith, PAAU’s spokesperson, told The Pillar that after federal FACE laws came on the books, pro-lifers mostly changed tactics, focusing more on sidewalk counseling or other kinds of advocacy.
But in the early 2010s, Handy and other pro-life activists began making “opportunity rescues,” in which they would enter abortion clinics, attempt to speak with women waiting for appointments, but leave when asked by clinic staff.
In 2017, some of those activists began “red rose rescues,” in which demonstrators would enter clinics, give red roses to women awaiting appointments, urge them to leave the clinic, and then, according to the red rose rescue website, “stay in the place of execution in solidarity with their abandoned brothers and sisters performing a non-violent act of defense through their continued presence inside the killing centers, remaining with them for as long as they can.”
A few years after the red rose rescues began, activists began “pink rose rescues.” Unlike their “red rose” counterparts, pink rose rescues do not have a religious component, and were intended, Smith said, “to make space for pro-life people who are maybe not religious.”
“The action is the same, but the messaging that we bring is different. The red rose rescue messaging typically has a Bible verse or a prayer or something like that attached to the rose, but with pink rose rescue, it’s more streamlined to include only reference to resources, and to just let the mothers know there is help for them.”
“So it’s a way to make room in the world of rescue for those that hold different beliefs— other than just Christianity.”
Smith told The Pillar that the resurgence of clinic rescues is a return to an “important part” of pro-life activism. But she said today’s rescues are different from those in the past.
“Back in the ‘70s and 80’s, rescue was this huge thing, and Operation Rescue was in its heyday. But between then and the past 10 years, when it’s come back, there was really not much rescuing happening, because FACE was new, people were nervous, there were more serious consequences.”
“Then in more recent years people have gotten up the courage … to say ‘No, we’re gonna do this. We’re gonna figure this out. Because this is still such an important part of our movement,’” Smith said.
“And so rescue has definitely been making a comeback, and we have adapted — like we’ve established pink rose rescues to be more inclusive. We’ve been doing opportunity rescues to be able to do more rescues with fewer [legal] consequences.”
Smith said that Handy and other leaders of the rescue movement have “taken mentorship and leadership from people who did rescue in the 70s and 80s.”
But the rescue movement, and associated groups like the PAAU, stand out from most other pro-life advocacy organizations — and even from the organizers of previous rescue movements.
Many rescuers identify as progressives, Smith said, though they have been joined by conservative Catholics and Protestants. While “red rose rescues” have a greater number of conservatives, Smith explained, “we kind of came up with the idea of pink rose rescue because we wanted to participate, and have a space for people who wanted to rescue that didn’t feel like they really fit into that box.”
PAAU is led by a team of women, most of whom are regularly involved in demonstrations, advocacy, and civil disobedience over other issues. Some are religious, while others, Smith said, are “very outspoken atheists.”
PAAU’s website emphasizes its commitment to “radical inclusivity while magnifying secular, feminist, liberal, and LGBTQIA+ identifying pro-life voices, especially those belonging to people of color.”
The group also has a stated “position against capitalism,” and explains that “abortion is a powerful and coercive tool used by capitalists to benefit their own bottom line.”
Smith said that some of the group’s leaders demonstrated for progressive causes for years before beginning to oppose abortion, while others, like her, have become politically progressive over time, while holding fast to longstanding pro-life views.
“We are so committed to being inclusive and being diverse that we will pretty much work with anybody. Our criteria is very easy because we just want you to be committed to nonviolence and committed to ending abortion,” she explained.
Smith said that discovery has led some people to PAAU and the rescue movement.
“Young people are intrigued by what we are doing because PAAU is doing things differently, and we have a different approach than do a lot of other pro-life organization. So I’ve seen a lot of people very interested in what we’re doing, and wanting to get involved since then. Obviously there is some uncertainty, and some people push back against it.”
Since they began performing rescues, red and pink rose rescuers have been sometimes arrested and charged with trespassing, and sometimes resisting arrest, Smith said, but have not frequently faced FACE charges, because “there are tactics and strategies that go into” avoiding federal criminal charges.
For example, Smith explained, “for FACE charges, you technically have to be physically blocking the entrance to a clinic — like you use your body to block the entrance, or chaining the door shut, or that type of thing. But with the pink rose rescue and the types of rescues that we've been doing, it's just simply walking into the building and speaking with people who are in the waiting room. So that's not any kind of, like, physical obstruction to the clinic.”
Only during some rescues, Smith explained, when rescuers have planned ahead of time, do they choose to resist arrest, or to resist removal from clinics — which some rescuers say is an effort to shut down clinic operations during police investigative procedures.
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Handy, who was sentenced July 12 to 30 days in jail, may have more time behind bars ahead of her.
She will be sentenced in September in Michigan, where she was convicted last month on trespassing and resisting arrest charges stemming from a 2019 rescue in Flint. She could face two years in prison for those charges.
Handy is also facing charges in California and Ohio, and was indicted in April on federal FACE charges, stemming from an October 2020 rescue at a Washington, D.C. clinic.
She could spend 11 years in prison if convicted in federal court.
The activist has been in jail before, but her 30-day sentence in Virginia will be her longest stretch of lockup.
But Handy told The Pillar last month that she is not afraid of incarceration, even if she eventually faces a long federal sentence. She said that as a devout Catholic, she’ll rely on her prayer life behind bars.
“I think because of my life experiences and various intersecting identities, I've had to learn to cultivate a strong interior life, to be able to withstand different things. And so I'm going to be heavily relying on these foundational spiritual exercises that I do … when I'm already facing difficult situations.”
In fact, Handy said she views incarceration as an opportunity to advocate for women.
“You know, I’m not scared. There are so many, many, rich opportunities for organizing behind bars, because these moms who are pregnant behind bars, they are literally the forgotten of the forgotten of the forgotten.”
“And it's so hard to do any type of organizing for [incarcerated] people outside of jail. But I will be uniquely situated to be able to be a voice from the inside, getting my voice out so we can be able to direct funds or try to get legal help for the people inside, because if you're pregnant and incarcerated, you'll either be pressured into an abortion, or because of the bad [medical] treatment you're very likely to have a miscarriage, or if you do give birth, you'll be chained to the bed while you give birth.”
“And if you don't have someone to take care of the baby within 24 hours, the baby will be taken out, taken from you and directed toward a predatory adoption agency,” she argued.
Smith told The Pillar that Handy is part of a new and emerging face of young, committed, serious pro-life advocates, who are willing to take risks for their convictions.
Handy and the other activists “understand that because of the way our system works right now, there are consequences for these kinds of actions. But we know that any consequences we will face are very minimal compared to the consequences the unborn might have faced — that they might have been killed that day,” Smith said.
“Rescue is the most direct thing that a pro-life person can do to try to stop the killing of the unborn. And that’s violence happening every single day,” she said.
“We are extremely committed to nonviolence in everything that we do … And if a person can go into a killing center and put themselves in between someone trying to perform violence against another person, I think that is the most direct nonviolent action that they can take.”
Smith did not directly criticize other pro-life efforts, and said that PAAU and other rescue movements “are regularly outside, sidewalk counseling outside of abortion clinics and engaging in peaceful protests, and educating the public and all of those other things.”
But she did emphasize her movement’s priorities, urging pro-life advocates to look into rescue movements mentored by “people with experience.”
“We think that the pro-life movement has become so removed from where the killing is actually happening, that we need to be getting back to the idea of rescue, because we really truly believe that the unborn deserve to be rescued and they have that right to be rescued.”
“The farther we move away from that, the more we are allowing the systems of abortion to take control of our society and become integral into our society. So we're trying to break that up and really go into where the killing is happening. That's where we need to be.”
“Our goal is to inspire a new movement of young people to be mobilized for non-violent direct action. And I really think we’re succeeding in that.”
Ed. note: This report has been edited since it was published to include additional remarks from Caroline Smith.