In August 2020, antiabortion protesters sat in front of an abortion clinic in Sterling Heights, Mich., singing Christian hymns and refusing police orders to move. They were arrested for trespassing, a misdemeanor. In February, the Justice Department announced a federal indictment in the case that could send some of the protesters to prison for up to 11 years. They were charged under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 law that Attorney General Merrick Garland has called a key tool in the Biden administration’s efforts to protect reproductive rights in the face of tightening legal restrictions for women seeking abortions, reports the Washington Post. Some conservative groups, Republican lawmakers and defense attorneys have accused DOJ of going too far in aggressively pursuing members of antiabortion groups who have not necessarily been dangerous. They say authorities are ignoring threats and vandalism at Catholic churches and reproductive health centers that counsel women against abortion.
Federal authorities and abortion rights groups said harassment, stalking and intimidation at abortion clinics have escalated since the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade — the court’s 1973 decision recognizing the federal right to an abortion. That behavior, they say, has made the Justice Department’s push for federal charges that come with harsh prison penalties more urgent. “We prosecute without respect to ideology,” Garland told a Senate hearing in the spring, “but we do focus on the most violent acts, the most dangerous actors and the cases most likely to lead to danger to most Americans.” Federal authorities are prosecuting several allegations of extremely dangerous behavior at abortion clinics that go beyond being disruptive. Among the examples are charges that a man threatened to burn down an Ohio abortion clinic last year, that a man set fire to an Illinois clinic in January and that three men conspired to firebomb a California clinic in March. Since President Biden took office in 2021, the Justice Department has brought 20 criminal prosecutions and one civil case under the FACE Act against a total of 46 defendants, with all but one of the cases involving charges for disruptions at abortion clinics. Decrying what they view as an imbalance, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced legislation to repeal FACE.