In the wake of the discovery of the remains of five aborted fetuses in the home of pro-life activist Lauren Handy, many pro-lifers have grappled with making sense of a series of events that the mainstream media have characterized, with only slight variation, as “utterly bonkers.”
At a live-streamed press conference on April 6, Handy, Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), and PAAU spokesman and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, intended to “set the record straight” on both Handy’s arrest and the discovery of the fetal remains. The group laid out their version of the timeline of events, attempted to dispel any myths surrounding their intent with the discovered remains, and alleged that the bodies of the children bore marks that prove that violations of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, as well as the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, are taking place at the Washington Surgi-Clinic. A single visual aid–a poster titled “In their names we fight” displaying a long list of first names given to the five older fetuses as well as 110 others who had apparently been aborted during the first trimester–was displayed prominently at the event.
Handy and Bukovinac followed up the press conference with multiple long-form interviews, published in Catholic media outlets including The Pillar and LifeSiteNews. While some are questioning their methods, many are hailing PAAU and Handy’s actions as heroic, having rescued the remains of unborn persons who otherwise would have been callously discarded, and the evidence of their allegedly suspicious deaths unreported.
Pieces of a Story
Rather than mobilizing the pro-life community into one united voice calling for “#JusticeForTheFive” the ambiguities that still remain lead to more questions than answers. These complicate the view of this as an unimpeachable “rescue” moment.
Although the press conference was intended to present their case in a more positive light, even more questions have arisen over what took place in Washington D.C. following the details the activists disclosed. More broadly, the story has opened up a discussion about PAAU’s controversial methodology. Disagreements can exist among those who oppose abortion, not only about their handling of this case, but also regarding how the push for an investigation by law enforcement authorities or by Congress is affecting public perception of the pro-life movement as a whole. Do alliances with politicians seeking to make this investigation an issue for the upcoming midterm elections serve our goal of making abortion both illegal and unthinkable?
A major question, at least in the public’s eyes, is the provenance of the remains. Currently, it remains contested as to whether a Curtis Bay Energy delivery driver handed over two boxes labeled medical waste from the Washington Surgi-Clinic to Handy and Bukovinac. Curtis Bay completely denies this. Additionally, Handy and Bukovinac claim to have held a funeral mass and burial for 110 of the smaller children; however, only a single image of a priest, whose face is blurred, exists to confirm this. The activists have also not disclosed the location of the burial plot itself.
Amongst pro-lifers, there is continued debate over whether Handy gave the dead their due dignity: Handy admits to keeping them in her apartment refrigerator for five days (Although, in multiple interviews, Bukovinac and Handy have claimed that they treated the apartment “like a tomb,” and did not eat or sleep there while the fetal remains were present.)
The question of respect for the dead continues to be one of the more perplexing aspects of the case. In view of the options, they could have chosen to immediately involve law enforcement once they suspected foul play (as in the case of Christopher X, who was at least over 30 weeks old and who they suggest may have been born alive), or to bury all of the dead privately. Both of these possibilities would seem more befitting the dignity of the dead than refrigerator storage. In their defense, Handy and Bukovinac say that they sought for three days to find a pathologist who would examine the remains, but were unsuccessful, which is why they ultimately chose to report their discovery to the police via a lawyer.
These incomplete pieces, as well as the negative fallout from the story and the trauma-inducing graphic image campaign that followed, have left many who oppose abortion skeptical of the efficacy of direct action for the purpose of “rescue.” Was it truly “direct” to ask a third party, the driver, to unwittingly provide evidence for a cause with which he was unfamiliar? Does the retrieval of corpses truly constitute a “rescue”?
While the country and the world expressed shock and disgust at the story as it came to be understood, PAAU’s supporters leaped to their defense. A.J. Hurley, director of Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, gave a response that encapsulates the overall sentiment of PAAU and its allies, “To treat these babies like trash and to put the focus on people who want to dignify them as though they are crazy lunatics … and to not put the focus on where it should be … it’s a very displaced anger,” he said.
But is anger over PAAU’s methods always “displaced”? Statements like Hurley’s that promote a one-sided view of Handy’s and Bukovinac’s actions are part of what continues to divide our movement. Many people who don’t support abortion object to how this situation was handled and is being handled. Ongoing division over whether the current mass dissemination of images circulating online is serving or hindering our cause is something even Handy herself acknowledged in an interview:
…the pictures being shown, when we weren’t really planning to show those pictures anytime soon. And it’s just like — a lot of people are hurt. A lot of people who’ve experienced pregnancy loss. A lot of people who are post-abortive — they’re hurt. And I understand, and my heart goes out to them.
This statement in particular raises the question as to whether she and those directly involved wanted the pictures to be shown or not. If not, how they were leaked remains just one of the many questions for the rescuers to answer.
The questions surrounding these events challenge the intended inscrutable integrity of Handy and Bukovinac’s actions, particularly as they may also face investigation for tampering with fetal remains. One also questions whether the same ends, calling for an investigation into the dubious practices of a D.C late-term abortion clinic, could have been arrived at differently. It remains to be seen whether the continuing rift over Handy’s methodology within the pro-life community has hurt it, or if it may help to build a truly united front for our movement.
A History of Activism
Handy’s recent actions follow a long history of involvement in nonviolent direct action within the pro-life movement. To further complicate and confuse matters, last week, just days before the discovery in the apartment, Handy was arrested with eight other pro-lifers for violating the 1994 Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act by forcefully entering and blocking access to services within an abortion clinic in 2020.
In the history of the pro-life movement, these methods are hardly original. The “rescue movement” began in 1987 when Joseph Scheidler and Randall Terry formed Operation Rescue and coordinated large gatherings intended to prevent access to abortion clinics. Handy, for her part, acknowledges that her greatest inspiration came from Randall Terry, who stood beside her at the press conference. In her interview with the Pillar she related how in 2013, she saw a documentary on Operation Rescue, “And I saw that documentary as an 18-year-old and I told everyone, ‘All right, it’s time to rescue.’”
History indicates that tactics of physical obstruction came under scrutiny even within Operation Rescue’s own ranks, and when the FACE Act was passed in 1994, they were already seldom utilized. Today, pro-life demonstrators and sidewalk counselors are well-aware of the zones in which they may legally stand around clinics and tend to not engage in acts of civil disobedience as a rule, while still successfully counseling abortion-minded women to choose life for their babies. However, the “rescue movement” has since been revived in practice on a small scale, with groups like Red Rose Rescue, founded in 2017, which deliberately engages in acts of civil disobedience inside of abortion clinics in order to prevent abortions from occurring on a particular day.
Handy has openly stated her disappointment when pro-lifers do not engage in the same type of “rescue” activity she herself participates in. “If abortion is murder, then our actions need to be reflective of that,” she insists. For Handy, and those who support her, the direct action approach is justified because she is abiding by God’s just laws, which are higher than man’s often unjust, civil laws. She has stated that she does not believe that an abortion clinic is a legitimate business, and therefore property laws barring activists from entry are themselves unjust.
But this view is not universally held amongst those who also fervently wish to see the end of abortion. Many believe that respecting the laws of man and engaging in civil discourse, broadly tackling the issue through public policy, resources, science, and advocacy are preferable and far more convincing of the reasonableness of our cause than any aggression or gruesome imagery.
For many in the pro-life movement, “rescue” needs to be consistent with the rest of our respect life ethic. To “rescue” human persons requires giving due respect to the lives and rights of all without exception: to the unborn, to their parents, to those (especially those) working in the abortion industry. As we are now on the cusp of possibly overturning Roe V. Wade how we go about establishing a truly just society where abortion is not only illegal but unconscionable matters the most. To her great credit, Handy, in addition to physical blockades, does work giving aid to women and children firsthand, something the mainstream media has ignored.
Hopefully, all people of good faith can agree that service and non-violent grassroots advocacy, though it tends to yield results more slowly, leads to a more genuine conversion of hearts and minds regarding abortion. This isn’t to say public policy and awareness are secondary, but our day-to-day advocacy must match our rhetoric to be convincing.
We are less likely to grow our ranks if we ourselves are perceived as reckless fanatics whose treatment of the living and dead evinces public disgust and draws attention away from the heinous crime of abortion we seek to end. We risk being perceived as hypocritical when we demand respect for life and then impinge on others’ civil rights — though we may differ from them in our views about abortion, are they not also human beings whose dignity we must respect?
It also may now be necessary to have a serious intra-movement conversation over whether images of abortion are still landing with the same shock-into-awareness value they once did or if they’re now counterproductive to our aims.
In the days since the #JusticeForTheFive campaign was launched, there has been increased pressure on the Washington D.C.examiner to conduct autopsies on the five bodies, a rally at D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, and a request for investigation publicized by a few, mostly Republican, members of Congress.
That supporters of PAAU are now accusing fellow anti-abortion advocates of being secretly pro-choice for their differing opinions is, ironically, also an example of the misplaced anger Hurley warned about.
The pro-life movement has everything to gain by consistently considering the humanity of all involved in our advocacy. This means going about our mission reasonably, and charitably attracting others with the truth, without making them flinch, turn away, or label us as “bonkers.” No one is rescued when that happens.
It is in this spirit of charity that this author, regardless of our differing opinions, is sharing a link to support Lauren Handy, who has been evicted from her apartment and faces up to 11 years in prison and $350,000 in fines. Let us always strive to respond to one another and our world with methods that work to achieve genuine support, healing, and yes, rescue.
Image: Screenshot from PAAU Press Conference, YouTube.
Marissa Nichols studied English Literature at both the University of San Francisco and Oxford University, England. In the past, she’s blogged, contributed to Catholicmom.com, and currently teaches English while editing for Where Peter Is. She left a theology masters in progress at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology to raise a growing family. Her family was featured in America Magazine, and her adult child of divorce story was featured in the book, Primal Loss: The Now-Adult Children of Divorce Speak. When she isn’t editing and teaching, she’s volunteering at her local, non-profit pregnancy center which she also helped found.