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Ambassadors in chains

Pro-life activists face long prison sentences as the Biden administration cracks down on abortion center protests

Heather Idoni’s mug shot at Grayson County Detention Center in Kentucky Grayson County Detention Center

Ambassadors in chains
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REBECKAH IDONI and her 3-year-old son Joey drive past dozens of houses and businesses on their way through downtown Linden, Mich., a city of just over 4,000 in the Flint metropolitan area. One building catches Joey’s eye through the car window as they roll by. It’s square and made of red bricks with two high windows looking out like eyes over Bridge Street. The backs of shelves stacked with picture books are visible through a wide bay window that juts onto the sidewalk. The shop’s name, BELOVED BOOKS, is painted in white on the door.

Joey used to spend hours in the store with his grandmother, who used to own the store. But that was before she went to jail. Sometimes, when they drive by, Joey tells his mom he thinks she’s still there.

“I don’t think Grandma is in jail anymore,” he says. “I think you need to go check.”

But it’s been months since they’ve been inside the bookstore, where sunny windows light up a high-ceilinged room filled with tall shelves. Colorful, impressionist paintings—replicas of Monets and other masterpieces painted by Rebeckah’s father-in-law—line the rustic brick walls. Rebeckah can’t bring herself to stop in because she knows her mother-in-law won’t be there. Heather Idoni has been in government custody since August. And she might not be back anytime soon to sit in one of the store’s cozy nooks, her grandson on her lap, reading him a book.

Heather is one of at least 20 pro-life activists convicted under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act in the past year—and one of eight already incarcerated. Former President Bill Clinton signed the FACE Act in 1994 to deter demonstrators from using physical means to interfere with abortion center operations. But it was rarely used to send pro-lifers to prison. Now, as the battle over abortion access intensifies in the wake of the Dobbs decision, the Biden administration is amping up the penalties—to showcase its support for “reproductive rights” and to punish anyone who stands in the way.

Heather caught the attention of federal officials after she blocked the entrances to four separate abortion facilities in 2020 and 2021: one in Washington, D.C., one in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and two in her home state of Michigan. In August, a Washington jury found Heather and other pro-lifers guilty of FACE-related crimes in the blockade there and immediately took them into custody to await sentencing. 

Five months later, another jury in Nashville also issued a guilty verdict against Heather and a separate group of activists, who were allowed to return home as they await sentencing. Her trial for the Michigan case is scheduled for August. Each case brings with it the possibility of more than a decade in prison. Heather is the only defendant involved in all three. A Washington court sentenced her on May 22 to two years in prison. In the other two cases, she faces the possibility of more than 20 years behind bars.

Heather Idoni (second from right) with other pro-lifers at the August 2020 rescue in Sterling Heights, Mich.

Heather Idoni (second from right) with other pro-lifers at the August 2020 rescue in Sterling Heights, Mich. Courtesy of Cal Zastrow

EARLY IN THE MORNING on Oct. 22, 2020, more than 500 miles from Heather’s bookstore, a security camera points down on the patterned carpet and green cushioned chairs of a Washington, D.C., abortion center waiting room. A facility worker opens the hallway door, and a scuffle soon begins. She and other workers are attempting to push back a mass of people trying to enter the room.

Heather Idoni eventually appears in the frame, a matronly woman in gray with frizzy hair pulled back from her black-rimmed glasses. She and the other pro-life activists have arrived to block the facility doors. A little later, a video livestreamed to Facebook shows her standing in front of the employee entrance, a doorway down the hall from the waiting room, arms linked with two fellow activists. As the pro-lifer taking the video explains, the activists are intervening with their bodies to prevent the murder of unborn babies. Then, two hours after they come in, police bring them out of the building in handcuffs.

That wasn’t Heather’s first time blocking the entrance to an abortion facility—or her first arrest. Heather has been participating in this type of activism, known by pro-lifers as rescues, since the late 1980s. Her first took place in Chicago, according to her husband Jim. She went with a friend, with Jim’s blessing. “Just don’t go get arrested,” he told her. They had been married for two years. The couple met in 1985 on a joint camping trip hosted by their nondenominational churches. He liked her independence and the way she made him laugh.

The night of that first rescue, he got a call around 11:15. It was Heather. She was in jail. It was just what Jim had asked her not to do. But he thought the Lord was telling him that if he supported his wife, He would bless them with many children. The babies that could be saved came to his mind, and he thought, Who knows what the Lord’s plans are other than the Lord? Today, the Idonis have five biological sons and 10 adopted sons from Ukraine.

Since the start of the pro-life rescue movement in the 1970s, participants faced fines and jail time, but passage of the federal FACE Act raised the stakes.

After that, rescues became a part of Heather’s life. By Jim’s count, she’s been jailed for pro-life activism at least 15 times. Before last August, her longest stint stretched past 90 days, Jim said.

Since the start of the pro-life rescue movement in the 1970s, participants faced fines and jail time, but passage of the federal FACE Act raised the stakes. The standard local penalties were minor compared with the maximum 12-­month jail sentence and $15,000 fine first-time offenders could receive under the FACE Act. Repeat offenses brought stronger penalties: up to three years in prison and $25,000 in fines. Offenses involving nonviolent physical obstruction carry less prison time and smaller fines, while offenses resulting in bodily injury can land a pro-lifer in prison for up to 10 years.

Then came 2022, and two things happened: The Supreme Court threw out Roe v. Wade, and the Biden Department of Justice threw down the gauntlet.

That year, the DOJ began pairing standard FACE Act indictments with charges of “conspiracy against rights”—the right of accessing so-called “reproductive health services.” The conspiracy penalty brings with it a possible 10-year prison sentence and its own fines. The department unsealed three such indictments against pro-lifers in the span of a year for three different rescues: the October 2020 rescue in Washington, D.C., a March 2021 rescue in Mount Juliet, Tenn., and an August 2020 rescue in Sterling Heights, Mich.

Steve Crampton is senior counsel at the Thomas More Society. He represents some of the pro-life defendants.

“Throughout the history of the FACE Act, the overwhelming number of cases that have been brought were brought civilly,” he said. In a civil FACE case, penalties include fines and injunctions. Historically, criminal FACE charges involving prison sentences have been rare. “It tended to be only where there were ‘extreme’ acts, if you will,” he said, such as bomb threats or entering the facility with a weapon. “That kind of dramatic fact pattern. Not the peaceful sort of sit-in.”

But the indictment against Heather and her fellow pro-­lifers in the Washington case marked a shift. Crampton links the move to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The December 2021 oral arguments and the June 2022 decision in that case, which overturned Roe v. Wade, bookended the first indictment in March. Then in July, the Justice Department announced a new Reproductive Rights Task Force, a special team designed to redouble protections for “reproductive freedom” under federal law. Officials indicated in a press release the group had already been at work. Heather’s second and third indictments followed in October 2022 and February 2023, both related to rescues that happened 19 and 30 months earlier.

Crampton said the Justice Department was reaching “way back in time,” looking for pro-lifers to punish.

A view of downtown Linden, Mich., with Beloved Books on the left and the barber shop on the right.

A view of downtown Linden, Mich., with Beloved Books on the left and the barber shop on the right. Photo by Leah Savas

AS THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT unsealed the indictments, national news outlets heralded FBI arrests. Lauren Handy, a co-defendant in the Washington case, made headlines when officials retrieved the remains of five aborted babies from her Washington apartment. Handy later revealed she had obtained the bodies from a medical waste truck outside the abortion facility where the rescue took place. In October, conservative outlets told and retold the story of pro-lifer Paul Vaughn. In a SWAT-style raid, FBI agents swarmed Vaughn’s house as his children were getting ready for school. Vaughn is a co-defendant in the Nashville case.

In rescue cases, the pro-lifers themselves usually record the events on their phones, effectively providing the government the evidence used against them.

“As a lawyer, we are sometimes frustrated with our clients for willingly undergoing arrest and creating these situations where we have to invest enormous time and resources to defend them in a case that’s virtually impossible to win,” said Crampton. But such circumstances also highlight the pro-lifers’ convictions: “These folks don’t believe they’re doing something wrong. They believe they’re doing something quite right.”

Beloved Books

Beloved Books Photo by Leah Savas

Heather’s initial arrest following the first unsealed indictment didn’t make national headlines, but it caused a stir in Linden. It was a slow Wednesday morning in March 2022. Mary Spooner stared through the front windows of the barber shop where she worked, across the street from Beloved Books. Cars with the “FBI” door decals had pulled into parallel parking spots on either side of the bookstore. Spooner saw what appeared to be several officers on the sidewalk out front.

Next, Spooner saw agents escorting Heather out of the store, her hands in cuffs. The sight shocked her, and she called out the news to her co-workers in the barber shop. Spooner had grown up as a homeschooled kid in the same circles as Heather’s sons. Since coming to work at the barber shop four years before, she had come to see Heather as a responsible business owner. She knew Heather wasn’t the type of person to get arrested for anything serious. After the agents drove away, Heather’s son Carman—who lived in the apartment above the bookstore with his wife Rebeckah and son Joey—came across the street to explain.

The FBI released Heather later that day. But she returned home with federal charges and a possible 11-year prison sentence hanging over her head. After prosecutors unsealed the second set of federal charges in October, Heather’s potential prison time topped two decades. In February 2023, the third indictment stretched that to three.

Her first jury trial was scheduled for August 2023. Around that time, word spread that she planned to close Beloved Books that summer. She’d already announced a liquidation sale.

“When we thought that we were no longer going to have the bookstore, there was a bit of concern in the area, because it’s like, what’s going in?” Spooner said. “Is it going to be someone who actually is going to take care of what’s going on in the community? Because that’s something that Heather did.”

Olivia Porter, then 18 years old, was at the library when she heard Heather planned to close the store. “I was heartbroken,” Porter remembers. “I was like, this can’t happen.” Later that day, she stopped by the shop to ask Heather if she could take over. On June 27, Heather announced a bake sale outside the shop and a chance to meet the “lovely new owner of Beloved Books, Olivia Porter.”

“We are celebrating God’s grace in allowing a smooth transition to new ownership as I am moving on to a new mission field,” Heather wrote in the Facebook post.

We are celebrating God’s grace in allowing a smooth transition to new ownership as I am moving on to a new mission field.

THE LAST TIME Carman and Rebeckah Idoni saw Heather was in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant in Fenton, Mich. Heather was heading to the airport to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., for her first trial. The couple brought Joey and his month-old baby brother. One of Carman’s younger brothers came, too. They all hugged Heather and prayed for her. It made her cry. Then, they took a group picture.

Heather sensed the Lord was preparing her to go to jail. Even if convicted, though, she expected to come back home for at least a couple of months to await sentencing.

Heather’s friend Trish Zastrow was with her through the three-week trial in August 2023. On Friday, Aug. 25, the jury began its deliberations before heading into a long weekend. It continued the following Tuesday. That day, they hung around in the courthouse cafeteria, waiting for the judge to call them back into the courtroom for the verdict. They finally got the call that afternoon.

Before the jury returned to the room, Heather got a text from one of her other sons. He and his wife had just had a baby. She turned around to Zastrow sitting in the gallery behind her.: “Isn’t that like God? The trial is over, and I get to go home tomorrow and hold my grandson.”

Minutes later, the jury arrived and the courtroom filled with U.S. marshals. Zastrow wondered what was going on.

Then the jury issued its verdict. “And they just said everybody’s name: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty,” Zastrow remembers. “Every single person was guilty of everything.”

To many of the pro-lifers, including Heather, the verdict didn’t come as a surprise. But they weren’t expecting what the judge said next: They had all been found guilty of violent crimes and would be detained immediately. Even the prosecution seemed surprised.

Zastrow watched in disbelief as the marshals began to handcuff her friends. “We’re all freaking out in the courtroom,” she recalled.

But Heather raised her cuffed hands above her head and smiled. “Well, I guess my prison ministry started early,” she said.

As the marshals led her and the others away, their friends called after them: Goodbye. We love you. We’re praying for you.

And they just said everybody’s name: Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Every single person was guilty of everything.

Unlike the Michigan and Tennessee cases, the Washington charges involved an allegation of physical injury against a worker at the abortion facility. According to the indictment, a nurse stumbled and sprained her ankle when one of Heather’s co-defendants, a tall young man named Jay Smith, backed into the room.

Smith had pleaded guilty to the charges against him a few months before the jury trial, admitting the nurse “suffered bodily injury” as a result of his “intentional push.”

Some of Heather’s family members told me they believe the government used the immediate incarceration to make an example of them, to deter other pro-lifers from participating in similar activism.

The day Heather went to jail, Rebeckah Idoni was sitting on the couch when she picked up her phone and saw a message from one of Heather’s friends. When she read the jury had declared her mother-in-law guilty, she started to cry. Joey came over and wrapped his arms around her. She put her head on his shoulder.

“Joey, just promise me never to forget Grandma,” she said.

“God’s not going to forget Grandma in jail,” Joey said.

Livingston County Jail in Howell, Mich.

Livingston County Jail in Howell, Mich. Photo by Leah Savas

HEATHER CALLED ME one day in March from the Livingston County Jail in Howell, Mich., ahead of a pretrial hearing in the Michigan case. At the time, she was practically down the street from her own home. It was the closest she had been to her husband since her incarceration. But the jail did not allow in-person visits. Learning that devastated her. “I think in all the six months I’ve been in jail, that’s the first time I really just cried my eyes out,” she said, her voice pained.

“But, you know,” she added, as if speaking to herself, “I can’t ask for just joy and no pain, and every single bit of pain is something else I’m offering up to share the Lord’s sufferings. … Whatever the Lord has for me, it’s to His honor and glory. And I’m good with it.”

Crampton says that’s common among the pro-lifers who are facing long sentences. “Almost to a man, to a woman, the response has been … ‘I have already laid down my life for Christ,’” he said. “‘If He chooses to take me into the prisons for a period of several years and perhaps carry on a ministry there, that’s His choice.’”

Heather has called Porter from jail to check in on how things are going at the bookstore. Porter said Heather told her about friends she’s made in prison and the ways she’s been able to witness to them. She said Heather sounds joyful over the phone. God is working with her story, even in jail, Porter said. “She feels like that’s where she needs to be.”

But Heather’s life behind bars hasn’t been easy. Her friends told me she was put in solitary confinement for a time because she was sharing food with other inmates. She also suffers from diabetes. Three weeks before her sentencing, she was hospitalized due to a stroke.

Idoni (standing) with other pro-lifers at the March 2021 rescue in Mount Juliet, Tenn.

Idoni (standing) with other pro-lifers at the March 2021 rescue in Mount Juliet, Tenn. Photo created from video screen captures, Dennis Green/Facebook

In April, the government recommended a sentence of 33-41 months for Heather in the Washington case. Her lawyer requested 12-18 months and said he would appeal any longer sentence. He’s hopeful the judge might even release Heather at the sentencing because of her health concerns. On May 14, Lauren Handy was sentenced to nearly five years in prison. Six other pro-life protesters got sentences between 21 and 34 months.

Her sons are holding out hope that even if the courts decide on the longest possible punishment for their mom, she won’t have to serve the full time.

In September, The Washington Stand reported that former President Donald Trump, while speaking at the 2023 Pray Vote Stand Summit, promised to pardon or commute the sentences of “every political prisoner who’s been unjustly persecuted by the Biden administration.” The Trump campaign did not respond to WORLD’s request for comment.

“Obviously, our true hope is in Jesus,” Carman said. “So I know not to put too much hope in humans. But yes, I do hope that somebody will be elected that will just pardon them.”

Still, Crampton acknowledges candidates say a lot of things on the campaign trail. “It’s hard to get your hopes up on that one,” he says.

Even if Heather does serve full sentences, her family members say they don’t regret her decision to block ­abortion facility doors. Her husband, who perhaps has the most to lose in Heather’s absence, is proud of her. Choking up with tears in a Michigan Burger King, minutes before heading off to his shift as a nurse at a local hospital, he read a Bible passage from his phone that Heather told him holds new meaning for her.

It’s Ephesians 6:19-20. “Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.”

—The version of this story that appears in the June 1 issue of WORLD Magazine has been updated to reflect the sentencing of Heather Idoni, Lauren Handy, and other pro-life activists.

Leah Savas

Leah is the life beat reporter for WORLD News Group. She is a graduate of Hillsdale College and the World Journalism Institute and resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.



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