Punishing pro-life activists
Federal charges escalate an increasing number of local cases stemming from nonviolent pro-life rescues
Paul Vaughn said he was getting ready to take his kids to school the morning of Oct. 5, when someone started banging on the front windows of his Tennessee home. He heard a voice from the front porch yell, “FBI! Open up!” and saw unmarked cars with flashing lights through the window. The banging resumed on the front door. He said he pulled back the curtain of the glass door and saw FBI agents with their guns drawn.
At first, he thought they had come there by mistake, he said. But when the agents told him they were looking for him, “almost immediately, I’m like, ‘Well, there’s only one reason they’d be looking for me. It’s gotta be pro-life related.’” Vaughn said once the agents secured him in their vehicle, they opened up a laptop and showed him a document. He had to squint to read it without his glasses, but Vaughn could make out his name and the acronym FACE.
Vaughn, a 55-year-old father of 11, is one of 11 pro-lifers the U.S. government charged this month with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The charges stem from a protest in March 2021, when pro-lifers blocked the hallway to a Mount Juliet, Tenn., abortion facility suite inside of a medical building. Congress passed the FACE Act in 1994 to stem blockades of abortion facilities and increasing violence against abortion facility staff. The Department of Justice claims that the 11 pro-lifers in Tennessee used “force and physical obstruction to injure, intimidate, and interfere with” facility patients and staff. A growing list of activists have faced similar federal charges this year for their involvement in peaceful pro-life demonstrations. The increasing crackdowns worry pro-lifers, who wonder if they will be next.
In September, Franciscan friar Christopher Moscinski received FACE charges for padlocking the gated entrance of a New York abortion facility and later using his body to block the driveway. The next week, the government charged Pennsylvania pro-lifer Mark Houck under FACE, citing an October 2021 altercation between him and a volunteer escort at a Philadelphia abortion facility. Back in March, the Department of Justice charged nine pro-lifers under FACE for an October 2020 sit-in at a Washington, D.C., abortion facility. And on Friday, a federal grand jury charged a 10th pro-lifer for helping to plan that same sit-in.
In the Mount Juliet case, Vaughn and six others face charges of “conspiracy against rights secured by the FACE Act.” Vaughn’s attorney, Thomas More Society senior counsel Steve Crampton, said normally a first-time FACE offender like Vaughn would receive misdemeanor charges punishable by one year in prison and a maximum fine of $10,000. But the added charge of conspiracy increases the potential penalty to 11 years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000. According to the Justice Department, Vaughn and his “co-conspirators” used social media to coordinate travel and to find others who would join the demonstration, conspiring against people’s rights to obtain and perform abortions.
The charge represents a major escalation in punishment—for Vaughn especially. According to local news coverage from the 2021 sit-in, Mount Juliet law enforcement arrested and charged only nine adults at the protest with criminal trespassing. Vaughn and one other defendant in the FACE case were not arrested.
“I intentionally, very methodically, very intentionally tried to stay on the right side of every law I was aware of and do everything right,” said Vaughn. He said his 11th child was due to be born at about the same time as that sit-in, so he decided not to risk arrest. Although a video of the sit-in shows Vaughn took part in the demonstration and had several lengthy conversations with police officers, he complied with the police when they gave their final warnings. Now he faces the possibility of more than a decade in prison.
Calvin Zastrow is a 57-year-old Michigan resident who has been participating in pro-life demonstrations at abortion facilities for more than 30 years. He attended the Mount Julie protest and was arrested. Video taken during the demonstration shows him sitting in front of a door while an abortion facility worker attempts to unlock it and tells him to move. He quietly replies, “No, ma’am,” and tells her of the forgiveness she can have in Jesus Christ. Another of the nine arrested was Eva Edl, an 87-year-old German survivor of a communist concentration camp in Yugoslavia. Edl is confined to a wheelchair.
Law enforcement also arrested Zastrow’s adult children James and Eva. Local officials charged them with criminal trespassing. Both now have misdemeanor charges under FACE. Video shows them sitting and standing in front of another door, singing hymns, praying, and listening to other pro-lifers read Scripture during the sit-in.
Zastrow said he found out about the federal charges while doing mission work in Ukraine. A fellow pro-lifer told him about Vaughn’s arrest by the FBI, so Zastrow warned his wife that agents might stop by their Michigan home. But Zastrow said later that the FBI never came to his home. Instead, an agent called him on his cellphone and politely designated a time for Zastrow to come to court for his arraignment the next week. No one was waiting to arrest him at the airport when he landed in Chicago. He said he showed up in court on Wednesday, pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him, and received instructions to show up for a bond hearing in Tennessee in two days.
Local prosecutors dropped the trespassing charges against three of the pro-lifers, including James Zastrow. His father said James accepted a plea bargain and a fine. But the six ongoing local trespassing cases have not made it to trial in Tennessee’s Wilson County Criminal Court. Attorney Daniel Turklay represents Zastrow, his daughter, and four other pro-lifers. He said the federal FACE charges surprised him.
“It’s not a crime for profit. There’s no violence here. There’s no theft here …. In this [local] case, it’s a relatively noncontroversial trespassing issue,” Turklay said. “This is truly something that is for the benefit of others, as opposed to for the benefit of themselves, which is a typical criminal case.” The next pretrial hearing is not scheduled until Jan. 9, just shy of two years after the demonstration occurred.
Zastrow also faces charges in Grand Rapids, Mich., related to a sit-in this past summer. He was among six people arrested for blocking the driveway of an abortion facility a few weeks after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Attorney Robert Dunn, arguing on behalf of five of the pro-lifers (Zastrow chose to represent himself in the case), asked the judge to instruct the eventual jury that if they found the defendants acted with the reasonable belief that they were protecting human life, they should find them not guilty. An attorney representing the city argued instead that the pro-lifers had no proof that an abortion was about to be performed and therefore could not argue they were defending others. The judge ultimately turned down Dunn’s motion, siding with the city attorney. Jury selection in the case is scheduled for Oct. 27.
Derek Anderson, one of the pro-lifers charged with trespassing, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the FBI started investigating this Grand Rapids case for possible FACE charges. “There’s always a looming, like, ‘what are they going to try?’” he said. “Because the FBI and the Department of Justice are weaponized against this issue.”
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