Jane’s Revenge: Biden’s Justice Department Uses Abortion Access Law to Indict Pro-Choice Vandals
Jane’s Revenge’s “first communiqué” was posted online on May 8, the same day the empty headquarters of an anti-abortion group, Wisconsin Family Action, were set on fire, and a few days after a draft of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe was leaked publicly. A message was left on the building in curling cursive spray paint: ‘If abortions aren’t safe then you aren’t either.’
Fox News quickly turned the “pro-choice extremist group Jane’s Revenge” into a recurring fixture of its on-air coverage. Facebook branded the group a “Tier 1” Dangerous Organization — the designation typically reserved for terrorists, hate groups and criminal syndicates.
It was an impressive level of outrage considering the incidents themselves, more of which followed throughout the summer and fall, amounted to relatively superficial property damage. At the moment, the FBI is seeking information related to 10 instances of arson and vandalism at anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers around the country. As a point of comparison, in 2021 alone, abortion providers reported 123 incidents of vandalism, 123 incidents of assault or battery, 28 stalking incidents, 16 invasions, 13 burglaries and 9 bomb threats, according to statistics kept by the National Abortion Federation. (To take a longer view, there have been 11 murders, 42 bombings, 196 arsons, 491 assaults in facilities that provide abortion care since 1977, per the group’s tally.)
As a rightwing bogeyman, though, Jane’s Revenge has proved surprisingly potent: The new House GOP, in one of its first official acts, passed a resolution condemning “the recent attacks on pro-life facilities, groups, and churches.” (Republican leadership refused to allow a vote on a separate measure, offered by Democrats, that would condemn violence against both crisis pregnancy centers and facilities that provide abortion.)
Now, Fox News’ devoted coverage of Jane’s Revenge and a conservative pressure campaign on Merrick Garland seem to be getting results. Last week, the FBI announced a $25,000 reward for more information about the incidents. Two days after that, the Department of Justice announced both the first arrests of individuals implicated in the spate of incidents for which Jane’s Revenge has taken credit — and the fact that prosecutors intend to use a law aimed at protecting abortion access to prosecute them.
This week, the DOJ announced indictments against Caleb Freestone, 27, and Amber Smith-Stewart, 23. Freestone and Smith-Stewart are accused of vandalizing three Florida crisis pregnancy centers: the Archdiocese of Miami’s ‘Respect Life’ facility in Hollywood, the Pregnancy Help Medical Clinics in Hialeah, and LifeChoice Pregnancy Center in Winter Haven. All three offer free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, and counsel women against terminating their pregnancies. Prosecutors accuse Freestone and Smith-Stewart of conspiring “to injure, oppress, threaten, and intimidate employees of facilities providing reproductive health services.” (Freestone and Smith-Stewart could not be reached for comment; Alex Saiz, the lawyer currently representing both of them in a separate protesting case, told Rolling Stone he would advise his clients not to speak about the case publicly.)
Ironically, the accused will now be prosecuted under the Freedom to Access Clinic Entrances Act: a law intended to protect access to reproductive health services. The FACE Act was passed in 1994, in the wake of large-scale clinic blockades organized by the militant group Operation Rescue, when hundreds of anti-abortion protesters would gather to physically block the paths of patients trying to enter health care facilities.
If it seems like a perverse misuse of a law intended to protect health care providers from the very real threats of violence they face for providing abortions, Julie Abbate, former deputy chief of special litigation with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division says it’s not. “It’s really a content-neutral law. It doesn’t take viewpoint into consideration,” says Abbate, who prosecuted FACE Act violations during her 15-year tenure at DOJ.
The law itself is a both-side-sy piece of legislation: In addition to language that explicitly protects facilities that provide abortions, the law also protects against blockades in front of “places of worship” — a provision that was added to broaden political support for the bill.( And a provision that came in handy when prosecutors were later forced to defend it: “One of the main ways that we used to defend the constitutionality of the FACE Act itself was by saying it’s content neutral,” Abbate says.)
Abbate says she is only aware of one other case in which the FACE Act has previously been used against a crisis pregnancy center. But that is not for a lack of interest on prosecutors’ part. “Any case that we found that we thought we could prove violated the FACE Act, we would absolutely try to bring that case,” Abbate says. “Absolutely. Without question, regardless of who the people were, or what their viewpoint was or where they were, whether it was a abortion clinic, crisis pregnancy center, or place of worship.”
When she was at the DOJ, Abbate says, her team actively sought any cases they thought qualified as FACE Act violations, including against crisis pregnancy centers and places of worship — at the time, GOP senators like Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) pressed the DOJ to do do — but there just weren’t as many reports of incidents at those locations. In that sense, at least, Jane’s Revenge seems to have finally given Republicans what they wanted.
Just don’t expect this case to mean the GOP will embrace the law. The same week the DOJ announced the Florida indictments, Biden administration lawyers were in court in Philadelphia to present arguments in a different FACE Act trial: A prominent anti-abortion activist Mark Houck is standing trial accused of assaulting a 72-year-old clinic escort outside a Planned Parenthood Philadelphia. Houck’s prosecution has transformed into a cause célèbre on the right, with Jim Jordan already suggesting he intends to make the case a focal point of the House GOP’s new select committee on the “weaponization of government.”