The Guy Who Shoved a Planned Parenthood Volunteer Lost His Primary. This Won’t Be the Last You Hear Of Him.

Mark Houck, a Pennsylvania man who became a pro-life hero after he was charged and acquitted of assaulting a 72-year-old Planned Parenthood volunteer, has lost his bid to represent his state’s 1st Congressional District.

In some ways, this is bad news for Democrats. The district, one of just 16 in the country that in 2020 voted for both Joe Biden and a Republican representative, will now be one in which a moderate Republican incumbent—Brian Fitzpatrick, the man who defeated Houck—fends off a Democratic challenger.

Had Houck won the primary against Fitzpatrick, Democrats would have been able, in the general election, to underscore the Republican candidate’s threat to reproductive rights (not to mention the 70-something volunteers who try to protect it).

Such a strategy would have been easy: Houck supports a full ban on abortion, with no exemptions for rape and incest. “When it comes to rape, incest, and life of the mother, you know, my faith informs me on some of that,” Houck said in August on the radio station 1210 WPHT. “The child doesn’t deserve the death penalty, and the reality of it is, we are further victimizing the mother. And so, once we start recognizing that, we’ll realize that rape and incest is not a good excuse to terminate a human being.”

That may make Houck seem like a fringe candidate, but he has powerful allies and has built a national profile off the 2021 incident that led to his criminal prosecution.

The backstory is this: For almost two decades, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Houck had driven two hours from his home to protest and pray the rosary outside a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, often remaining there for hours at a time. (The CEO of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania alleged that Houck carried a “large knife” on his belt and harassed, insulted, and even threatened patients.)

A video from October 2021 shows Houck twice shoving a man who was later identified as Bruce Love. Houck approached Love with pamphlets as the volunteer was trying to protect women who were leaving the clinic. The two men got into a heated exchange and Houck shoved Love, causing him to fall. (Love was not seriously injured.) Houck has maintained that he was acting in defense of his 12-year-old son, who was accompanying him, and has claimed that Love cursed and shouted abusive comments at them both.

Houck was arrested and charged nearly a year later under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a federal law that criminalizes harming or intimidating abortion service providers. He was acquitted in January 2023, but by that time he had become, in the eyes of the anti-abortion movement, a political martyr.

Immediately after his arrest, Houck’s wife claimed that a SWAT team of 20 to 30 armed agents and 15 vehicles descended on their house, pounding on their door and terrorizing their children. “They had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids,” she told the conservative Catholic News Agency. “They came in as if they were expecting some kind of confrontation.” The FBI has said this description is “inaccurate,” that there was no SWAT team involved, that agents had merely, under standard procedure, knocked on his door and asked him to come with them.

But the Houck family’s version of events took off—and conservative politicians glommed on. In a March Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz grilled Attorney General Merrick Garland on alleged anti-Catholic bias at the FBI. (A recent watchdog report has found no such bias.) They focused largely on Houck’s case, claiming that the agency had, in Hawley’s words, “used an unbelievable show of force” out of proportion to the nature of the crime.

Failed Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano also made Houck’s case his pet cause, as did Fox News and the collected conservative Catholic media. Rep. Scott Perry invited Houck as his guest to the 2023 State of the Union address. During his trial, Houck drew masses of protesters and crowdfunded more than $400,000, a sum that—because he was not actually convicted—went largely into trust funds for his children. In November, Houck filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice, claiming a “faulty investigation” and “excessive force.”

The story popularly told of Houck—that he was a godly family man victimized by an overzealous DOJ looking to punish conservatives—conveniently omits his decades of often inflammatory activism.

Houck was the founder of the King’s Men, a Catholic group dedicated to traditional gender roles and father-son bonding, and created in opposition to pornography, abortion, and “same-sex attraction.” According to its website, the organization takes credit for the closure of 22 “sexually oriented businesses.” Houck himself became a speaker, author, and radio host with an emphasis on “authentic masculinity,” chastity, and avoiding pornography; he claims that in 2008, the conference of Catholic bishops circulated a tract of his, on the topic of pornography, to every diocese in the U.S. Houck’s profile rose as he and his group protested—for five years—outside an adult entertainment store, sprinkling holy water on the property. The protests resulted in a federal court case, which Houck won.

Houck’s notoriety, it seems, did not help him in this more moderate Pennsylvania district. His opponent, Fitzpatrick, is one of the most moderate Republicans in the House and has held his seat since 2017, winning his past two elections easily. Although he hasn’t been fully consistent in his support of abortion access, Fitzpatrick was one of three Republicans to support allowing women to freely cross state lines for abortions. Houck, meanwhile, ran to Fitzpatrick’s right on most issues, emphasizing, in addition to his anti-abortion credentials, defunding the Education Department, opposing environmental and energy regulations, and protecting gun rights.

Fitzpatrick will face Democrat Ashley Ehasz, a former Army helicopter pilot, in the general election. He beat Ehasz by 9 points in 2022 and is outraising her significantly. Still, the county has seen signs of leftward movement, a trend that makes Republicans in the state nervous. Houck’s loss will, at least, be reassuring for them.