Days after police found five fetuses at the Washington, D.C., home of an anti-abortion activist, the group she belongs to is now claiming that it obtained 115 fetuses—and buried 110 at a location it refused to divulge.
At a press conference earlier this week, the activists unspooled a story of how they apparently came to possess those fetuses. Terissa Bukovinac, the founder of the group, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, said that she and Lauren Handy, the activist who stored the fetuses at her home, met a truck driver for a medical waste company who was loading biohazard waste boxes outside an abortion clinic in D.C. on March 25. Bukovinac said they convinced the driver to give them a box, although the company, Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services, has vigorously denied the story.
Inside the box, Bukovinac said, were the fetuses.
Brandishing bloody fetal remains as evidence of abortion providers’ alleged crimes has a long history in the anti-abortion movement, although more mainstream anti-abortion groups have in recent decades tried to distance themselves from it. But since news of the fetuses broke, abortion opponents from across the spectrum have thrown their support behind calls for an investigation into them. Those supporters range from several congressional Republicans to an anti-abortion activist who once thrust what he said was a fetus at Bill Clinton.
The display of unity around Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, even as Handy faces a federal indictment, indicates that so-called “radical” and “mainstream” anti-abortion figures have far more in common than the people outside the movement may think. And, at a time when the Supreme Court may be just weeks away from overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, abortion opponents may be readying themselves to pursue ever more extreme actions.
“These are not people who are different from each other in as many meaningful ways as we may imagine,” said Jennifer Holland, a University of Oklahoma assistant professor of U.S. history who has studied anti-abortion activists. “I don’t think that there were ever really meaningful differences in what this movement wanted, and thus it has been an incredibly powerful movement. Slightly different avenues—same goal.”
News first broke about the fetuses last week, around the same time that federal prosecutors indicted Handy and eight other defendants for allegedly blockading a D.C. abortion clinic in 2020. (Handy has pleaded not guilty. No one has been charged in relation to the fetuses.) D.C. police told VICE News that they had gotten a tip about the fetuses; Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising says they generated the tip, in the hopes that authorities would investigate whether the fetuses had been aborted in violation of federal laws restricting abortion.
“This is not over. This is far from over,” longtime anti-abortion activist Randall Terry, who shepherded the Tuesday press conference, told VICE News. “We want to see it be a criminal act to murder an unborn baby. Period.”
“This is not over. This is far from over. We want to see it be a criminal act to murder an unborn baby. Period.”
In 1992, Terry was arrested after members of his anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, shoved what they said was an aborted fetus at Clinton, who was governor of Arkansas at the time. (A judge had previously issued an order to prevent them from doing exactly that.)
In its 1980s and ’90s heyday, the group was known for enormous protests that derailed abortion clinic operations and led to more than 70,000 arrests. The New York Times likened their tactics to sieges.
“We were physically intervening. It’s not radical. It makes sense: We’re being consistent in our belief that abortion is murder,” Terry said. In an interview with VICE News, he repeatedly pointed to the civil rights movement as an inspiration for his tactics, which he compared to the “weaponry” of social change. “I refuse to lay them down at the feet of our enemies,” Terry said.
Operation Rescue led massive demonstrations against Dr. George Tiller’s Wichita, Kansas, abortion clinic; after Tiller was assassinated in his church by an anti-abortion gunman, Terry said Tiller was “a mass murderer and horrifically, he reaped what he sowed.”
In a January appearance on a podcast, Bukovinac brought up Operation Rescue’s controversial reputation and praised it for, she said, essentially sustaining the anti-abortion movement in the United States.
“This has been such a huge inspiration for me,” Bukovinac said. “Since then I’ve had the honor of meeting and working alongside Randall Terry, who was the founder of Operation Rescue, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s time to bring the rescue movement back.”
For its part, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising champions several left-of-center causes: Its website has a sticker for Black Lives Matter and says it “takes a position against capitalism” and supports feminism. This might seem incompatible with anti-abortion activism, but the movement has a long history of adopting feminism as well as social and racial justice causes for its own messaging.
Joan Bell, who has been known as Joan Andrews or Joan Andrews Bell, was also at the press conference. In the 1980s, Bell entered a Florida abortion clinic and damaged its equipment before police escorted her out; when she refused to cooperate with authorities, she was imprisoned and hailed as a martyr.
Bell was also a reported associate of James Kopp, who was convicted of killing New York abortion provider Barnett Slepian. (“I always believed in total nonviolence,” Bell said in an interview posted last year. “I was a pacifist, even though I accept church teaching that you can defend yourselves and others. I never wanted to ever kill anyone, or hurt anyone.”)
Now, Bell is among the nine defendants indicted for their alleged roles in the clinic blockade. Court records do not show any plea from Bell as of Thursday morning. An attorney for Bell didn't immediately return a VICE News request for comment.
Today, mainstream groups are known for a “death by a thousand cuts” legislation-based approach to dismantling abortion rights, rather than the more aggressive methods utilized by Terry and Bell. But even those groups are commenting on the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising controversy.
Anti-abortion activists Lauren Handy, front, with Terrisa Bukovinac, from left, Jonathan Darnell, and Randall Terry, speak during a news conference in Washington, Tuesday, April 5, 2022. Police found five fetuses in the home of Lauren Handy, a self-proclaimed "anti-abortion activist" who was indicted this week on federal charges alleging that she was part of a group of people who blocked access to a Washington, reproductive health center. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The March for Life, the biggest annual anti-abortion gathering in the country, tweeted the hashtag “Justice For the Five,” a reference to the five fetuses. In a statement, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the most powerful anti-abortion groups in the country, called for an investigation, compared abortion to slavery, and said that “ending abortion is the human rights battle of our time.”
The controversy has even caught the attention of congressional Republicans, 23 of whom sent a letter to the Washington, D.C., mayor and police chief, demanding a “thorough investigation” into the fetuses as well as their eventual burial.
Anti-abortion state lawmakers have spent years pushing for bills that would require abortion clinics to provide, essentially, funeral rites to fetuses. That goal is in line with a core tenet of anti-abortion ideology—that fetuses are people—and that, if realized, could rewrite wide swathes of U.S. law.
At the Tuesday press conference, however, the activists declined to discuss any conversations they’d had with other anti-abortion groups.
“Part of the success of the anti-abortion movement has been in obscuring the links between the mainstream and the fringe,” Karissa Haugeberg, an associate history professor at Tulane University who has studied the anti-abortion movement, told VICE News earlier this year. “The fringe has always helped move the discourse farther to the right, and the center has appreciated that pull but has always had to pretend that they’re not a part of it.”
The fetus saga involves other connections to high-profile figures in the anti-abortion movement. On Friday, Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising tweeted out a letter written by lawyer Steve Cooley, addressed to Washington, D.C., police and the local medical examiner. In it, Cooley wrote that he had “been contacted by an entity that very recently came into possession” of fetuses.
Cooley told VICE News over email that entity was not Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising. He declined to say who it was, citing attorney-client privilege, but said he is still involved in the case and is not representing anyone from Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising.
Cooley’s law firm previously represented David Daleiden, who was ordered to pay Planned Parenthood millions of dollars after a jury found that Daleiden had broken multiple laws when he secretly recorded Planned Parenthood workers. Anti-abortion activists said that the recordings showed that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling body parts, but multiple investigations couldn’t substantiate that claim.
“Abortion providers comply with existing laws that regulate medical tissue for all health care providers to ensure that it’s handled safely, appropriately, and respectfully,” Melissa Fowler, chief program officer for the National Abortion Federation, told VICE News in a statement. “Anti-abortion individuals and groups are increasingly resorting to extreme and illegal antics to attempt to intimidate clinic workers and patients and stop them from seeking or providing abortion care.”
Someone who picked up the phone at the abortion clinic where the fetuses allegedly originated, Washington Surgi-Clinic, told VICE News that it had no comment on Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising’s allegations.
Curtis Bay Medical Waste Services did not respond to a VICE News request for comment, but it told local Washington, D.C., outlet WUSA9 that its employee never handed over packages to Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising.
“As stated in client agreements and company policy, customers like Washington Surgi-Clinic are prohibited from disposing of fetuses and human remains via Curtis Bay’s services,” the company said in a statement. “Curtis Bay provides its clients with medical waste bags and boxes to use in a manner that complies with applicable law, client agreements and company policy. Curtis Bay continues to fully cooperate with law enforcement.”
The Washington, D.C., medical examiner has no plans to autopsy the fetuses, the Washington Post reported Friday. Ashan Benedict, Washington, D.C. police’s executive assistant chief of police, said that the fetuses appeared to have been aborted “in accordance with D.C. law.”
“There doesn’t seem to be anything criminal in nature about that except for how they got into this house,” Benedict said, according to the Post.
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