Ed. note: Some photographs in this report contain graphic images displayed by protestors.
Activist Lauren Handy called on Washington, D.C. officials Friday to autopsy the bodies of unborn babies she says might have been killed through illegal abortion procedures. Handy spoke at a rally outside the office of the city’s Chief Medical Examiner, which led to tense moments between demonstrators and police.
One demonstrator at the rally urged Washington, D.C., Cardinal Wilton Gregory to formally request that after an autopsy, those bodies be turned over to the Archdiocese of Washington for burial.
Handy spent eight hours in federal custody last month, and is facing the prospect of more than a decade in federal prison. She has also been at the center of a global media firestorm.
But the activist spoke at a noon rally in front of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in DC on Friday to demand that the bodies, which Handy says she recovered from a medical waste company March 25, receive autopsies and that their causes of death be determined.
“It’s amazing to see how we can come together from across the aisle, from across the political spectrum, to demand justice for the five,” Handy told the crowd, a red scapular and crucifix dangling conspicuously from her neck next to a large “DIVEST FROM BIG ABORTION” button.
“There is hope, and there is healing, and there is love, and there is beauty,” Handy said. “We can create safe and sustainable communities for all of us. May God have mercy on us.”
Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, spoke alongside Handy, and emphasized her horror at what they had seen two weeks prior.
“We opened the plastic containers that contained the babies that are pictured in front of you today,” Bukovinac told the crowd, referring to graphic images of each child displayed on large posters. “It’s definitely the worst experience of my life.”
“We’ve been anti-abortion activists for many years. We’re tough activists: we’ve been arrested, we have been assaulted,” Bukovinac continued.
“But I don’t think either of us were prepared for what we were about to see. Our heart breaks for these babies, and for their parents. We know that no one wants this for themselves, or for their child, that this is a symptom of a deep problem in our society.”
Bukovinac also emphasized the lack of resources for pregnant women in the area.
“In Washington D.C., east of the Anacostia River, there is a maternity desert. There is no help for some of these moms. And so we are that lifeline,” she said in describing their rescue operations. “We are taking a final opportunity to try to connect people who are in these vulnerable circumstances from exploitation by killers like Santangelo.”
Dr. Cesare Santangelo is the physician at Washington Surgi-Center.
Some protestors carried signs with photographs depicting the bodies of unborn children which Handy and Bukovinac say they recovered March 25 from outside the Washington Surgi-Center.
The rally ended with activists laying flowers on the steps up to the Medical Examiner’s building. This display was halted, however, when police intervened and told the demonstrators to back off the stairs onto the sidewalk. One side of the staircase was roped off with a police line, but the other side, where activists laid their flowers, was not.
The atmosphere became visibly tense for several minutes as protestors confronted police. No physical altercations occurred. Bukovinac told The Pillar that rally organizers had informed police beforehand of plans to place the flowers on the steps.
In response to police action, Bukovinac led the crowd in a call-and-response cheer: “How do you spell ‘cover-up’? DCPD!” she shouted with protestors.
The cries quickly turned into “Justice for the five!” and “DCPD, autopsy now!”
Some demonstrators spoke to the officers directly.
“Officers, please, we are begging you: speak to your superiors,” said Herb Geraghty, Executive Director of Rehumanize International, through a megaphone.
“Tell them that you demand an autopsy. You do not want to be involved in a cover-up of the next Gosnell!”
Before that tension, the rally included speakers from Handy’s PAAU, and from organizations across a broad political spectrum: CPAC, Students for Life, Rehumanize International, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, and Pro-Life San Francisco.
Speakers highlighted the paucity of D.C. laws regarding partial-birth abortion or protections for children born alive during the procedure, and many referenced undercover footage from 2012 in which Santangelo was documented saying that he would let infants born during his operations die.
“We can end this gruesome practice that not only happens here, but happens across the country,” said Kristen Turner of Pro-Life San Francisco. “My work in San Francisco is extremely similar. These abortionists are doing abortions, high likelihood of live birth, and no accountability.”
“It’s the greatest disappointment to know, when we have success, we have these horrendous setbacks, and this crime that has taken place with these babies,” said Matt Smith of the American Conservative Union. “So we join our friends here in calling for an autopsy, in calling for an investigation. Because until then, there will not be justice for these children, there will not be justice for their memory.”
“Gosnell is not an outlier,” said Michael New, a professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America, in reference to Kermit Gosnell, an abortionist who in 2013 was sentenced to three life terms for violations of abortion law. “Gross misconduct in the abortion industry, especially among late-term abortionists, is common.”
“The media did cover Gosnell. But it treated it like an isolated crime story,” New said. “Afterwards, the media did not investigate abortion facilities, the media did not investigate misconduct in the abortion industry, the media did not investigate or discuss abortion at all.”
Other speakers alleged foul play by city officials for the benefit of the abortion industry.
“We are witnessing a city-wide cover-up of infanticide. We deserve answers,” said Anna Lulis of Students for Life. She said the five babies in question “were members of the District, and they deserve at a bare minimum an investigation that includes an autopsy. But not just any investigation - there needs to be a federal investigation into the deaths of these five children immediately.”
One speaker, Monica Miller, called for the Archdiocese of Washington to request the bodies for a burial.
“I wanna go on record right now to call the cardinal-archbishop of Washington, D.C. to put in a formal request for these bodies to be turned over to the Church for purposes of burial.”
Miller told The Pillar afterwards that she had been in contact with a bishop who had reached out to Cardinal Wilton Gregory about this request, but had received no reply. The Archdiocese of Washington did not respond to The Pillar’s request for comment.
Handy and Bukovinac say they recovered the bodies of 115 fetuses, including the five they allege are evidence of federal crimes, from the Washington Surgi-Center on March 25 when they approached a truck driver transporting the remains. The bodies were stored in Handy’s apartment freezer until they were collected by the city government on March 30, the same day as Handy was federally indicted for a 2020 “rescue” demonstration at the same Washington abortion clinic.
Handy and Bukovinac had requested that the Medical Examiner collect the bodies in order to conduct an investigation into their deaths.
PAAU says five of the bodies show evidence of violations of the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act or the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act.
The activists named all 115 babies, gave them a funeral Mass, and say 110 were buried in an unmarked plot at an undisclosed location. The remaining five bodies were collected by DC authorities at the request of Handy and Bukovinac on March 30.
On April 1, the Washington Post reported that the DC Medical Examiner did not plan to conduct autopsies on the five fetuses. The Medical Examiner did not respond to ThePillar’s April 7 request for comment.
The Washington Surgi-Clinic declined The Pillar’s request for comment on this story.
Also Friday, Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) and 68 other Congressional representatives and Senators sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for the Department of Justice to investigate the five deaths as federal crimes. The letter noted that Congress in 2003 declared that a partial-birth abortion was “never medically necessary” for a pregnant mother. In response to comments by the DC police that the children died in legal abortions, the lawmakers also that they “question whether such a conclusion can be reasonably reached regarding the cause of death for each preborn baby until an official autopsy is performed.”
News about the letter came during Friday’s rally, and Bryan Kemper, founder of Stand True International, read an excerpt to the crowd.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, in a letter dated Friday to Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), said Handy had engaged in “extremist anti-abortion activity” and said that Handy was potentially guilty of “serious violations of federal law” for both recovering the remains and for the charges on which she has been indicted. Bowser issued the letter in response to a request to investigate the cause of the infants’ deaths, sent to her and Chief Robert J. Contee of the Metropolitan Police Department by Lankford and 22 other members of Congress.
Lankford responded to Bowser’s letter on Twitter, saying that the DC mayor “thinks revealing the death of children is a crime, not taking the lives of children. Where are the babies? What has happened to them?”
In remarks to The Pillar, Handy said she was undeterred by Bowser’s remarks.
“We’re here to be extremists for love,” Handy said. “Radical acts of violence need to be met with radical acts of love. I’m not afraid of the label ‘extremist’ because of our commitment to nonviolence, our commitment to dismantling the abortion industry.”
The national attention has also fueled Bukovinac and Handy’s activism.
“This is really snowballing,” Handy told The Pillar. The activists hope to maintain a “constant presence” in front of the mayor’s office each day as events progress.
“We’re definitely hoping that the Senate committees hold some hearing on this,” Bukovinac said. We want to see Santangelo called in to testify. We want to see him shut down.”
The congressional support has also helped, they said.
“We never imagined it would be supported this much by members of Congress,” Bukovinac told The Pillar. “And it’s definitely given us a hope that we didn’t necessarily have in the beginning.”
The pair also agreed that Friday’s rally would raise pressure for DC city officials to conduct autopsies.
“I think we were able to bring a lot of that emotion and build an intensity with it,” Bukovinac said, “that we were able to channel that emotion towards the DCPD where it belongs in demanding that they do an autopsy.”
“It reflected the movement as a whole,” Handy said, “and different forms of mourning and grieving were displayed as well. We had the photos of the children, and then we had people being able to put down flowers, and then we had song and community, and then we were able to be on the bullhorns as well.”
“Yesterday’s event really reflected that unity through diversity.”