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Charlotte Allen

By Charlotte Allen

​Early in the morning of Sept. 23, a team of FBI agents suddenly appeared at the home of Catholic pro-life activist Mark Houck in rural Kintnersville, Pennsylvania. According to Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie, the FBI squad, numbering about 25 people, emerged from about 15 vehicles and swarmed on the family’s front lawn, sporting helmets, shields, and drawn guns. After reportedly threatening to break down the front door, the agents handcuffed Houck, age 48, in front of the couple’s seven terrified children and led him away.

Houck’s alleged crime: On Oct. 13, 2021, nearly a year previously, he had driven to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia, as was his weekly custom, to pray and protest peacefully outside. On the sidewalk he encountered one of the volunteer “escorts” who whisk women inside abortion clinics as soon as they arrive. Houck allegedly shoved the escort, a 72-year-old man who, Houck said, had verbally harassed his 12-year-old son whom he had brought with him. Planned Parenthood called the Philadelphia police, who arrived at the scene but decided not to make an arrest. The Philadelphia district attorney similarly declined to prosecute Houck over the incident. The escort reportedly sued Houck, but a judge threw out the case after the escort allegedly failed to appear in court.

​In April, six months after the incident, Houck received a notice from the Justice Department stating that he was under investigation by a grand jury over his alleged felony violation of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, passed by Congress in 1994 in the wake of several bombings of abortion clinics. Houck’s lawyers had offered to surrender him voluntarily, but the FBI seemed to prefer the drama of a surprise raid.

On Oct. 5, less than two weeks after Houck’s arrest, another pro-life activist, 55-year-old Paul Vaughn, was similarly apprehended at 7 a.m. by gun-waving FBI agents at his home in Centerville, Tennessee, as he was getting ready to take two of his children to school. His wife captured the arrest on video, and you can see at least four armed agents shoving a handcuffed Vaughn into a car while ignoring her pleas to explain why they were there.

The incident for which Vaughn was arrested took place on March 5, 2021, nearly a year and a half previously. Vaughn, president of a pro-life group, had been one of about 22 people peacefully protesting in front of a medical building in Mount Juliet, near Nashville, that housed an abortion clinic. At some point some of the protesters walked into the building and allegedly sat down in front of the clinic doorway. Local police called to the scene persuaded all but nine of the adults and four teens to leave; those 13 they arrested for trespassing. Vaughn was not among the nine adults, and it was unclear whether he had even entered the building. But he was one of seven people federally indicted for felony conspiracy to violate the FACE Act (the FBI eventually charged 11 people, including an 87-year-old grandmother). Vaughn faces up to 11 years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Then, on Oct. 14, the Justice Department secured another felony FACE Act indictment against 25-year-old Herb Geraghty of Pittsburgh for participating in an alleged blockade of an abortion clinic in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 22, 2020, more than two years ago. Nine other people had been similarly indicted in March over the incident. Geraghty, who faces the same maximum penalties as Vaughn, has said he’s trying to arrange a self-surrender.

​You might be asking: What on earth is going on? Why a sudden flurry of FACE Act indictments and high-drama FBI raids this fall over ancient-history incidents that were already handled and disposed of by local law enforcement? In addition, the Tennessee incident could be completely moot. Tennessee enacted a “trigger” law in 2019 that criminalizes nearly all abortions, and the law became effective after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on June 24 overturned Roe v. Wade and restored abortion oversight to the states. The clinic in Mount Juliet that Paul Vaughn had been protesting stopped performing abortions in late August, more than a month before his arrest.

​Indeed, some Republican members of Congress asked that very question in an Oct. 12 letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray (pdf). Besides citing the Houck and Vaughn incidents, the letter pointed to the felony FACE Act indictment on Sept. 29 of Franciscan friar Fidelis Moscinski for allegedly padlocking the gate of an abortion clinic on Long Island on July 7. Moscinski had engaged in a similar action in 2021 that local law enforcement had treated as a misdemeanor warranting three months in jail. The letter also referred to a reported Sept. 22 incident in which FBI agents allegedly showed up outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota, to quiz a pro-life protester who had allegedly pushed back at a clinic client who had allegedly tried to cut up a protest sign. Charges had been filed against the protester locally and then allegedly dropped, it was reported.

​“The recent rise in high-profile FBI investigations into pro-life Americans raises well-founded concerns that the FBI has amassed too much power and has become a partisan cudgel wielded by the Biden Administration at the behest of progressive activists against political opponents and dissenters,” the letter read, signed by Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) and Reps. Chip Roy (R-Texas) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

Well, yes, exactly. The timing of the arrests and indictments alone—September and October during an election year—should tell all. After the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision, abortion became the issue on which Democrats, including the Biden administration, pinned their hopes for distracting voters from the rising inflation and rising crime that were dragging them to the GOP. Women voters, especially, would fire themselves up over threats to perceived abortion rights, whether from Republican state governments or so-called pro-life fanatics.

So far the strategy hasn’t worked all that well—but the election is still more than a week away, and the Biden Justice Department and its enforcement arm, the FBI, may still have time to impress wavering liberals with its high-profile commitment to cracking down on their perceived enemies.

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