Yes, this anti-abortion activist's sentencing was extreme. But she was still wrong

An anti-abortion activist was sentenced to almost five years in prison for blocking an abortion clinic.

She was wrong, and the abortions she was protesting are inhumane −but her sentence seems too severe, even hypocritical.

Two things can be true at once: A 57-month prison sentence for an anti-abortion activist breaking into an abortion clinic is extreme and activists need to stop committing crimes to stop abortions.

On Tuesday, a U.S. District Court judge sentenced three of 10 defendants convicted of invading and blocking the entrance to the Washington Surgi-Clinic, an abortion clinic in Washington, D.C., preventing patients from receiving abortions or other care for several hours.

Handy's sentence seems severe for her crime

U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly sentenced Lauren Handy, 30, to 57 months in prison. Handy organized the blockade in 2020 and was convicted by a jury of civil rights conspiracy and Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act offenses. The prosecution recommended sentencing of 63-78 months, so Handy got slightly less prison time than suggested. More of Handy's co-defendants have been sentenced to prison time, and others will be sentenced soon. Of all 10 defendants, only one pleaded guilty.

Anti-abortion activist Lauren Handy listens during a news conference on the five fetuses found inside the home where she and other anti-abortion activists were living on Capitol Hill, at a news conference at the Hyatt Regency on April 05, 2022 in Washington, DC. The activists, who are members of the Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) group, held the news conference to answer questions on how the group came to attain the remains of the aborted fetuses.

Conservatives are bemoaning Handy's nearly five-year prison sentence, and I agree. Handy's sentence does seem harsh and lengthy, acknowledging that she blocked the entrance and committed two federal crimes. But her sentence seems particularly severe in light of other crimes in the area.

According to a report from the Secret Service, a 21-year-old man from Washington, D.C., was sentenced this year to 30 months in prison in connection with his possession of a GLOCK firearm and possession of an AK-style pistol recovered during a traffic stop by the U.S. Secret Service. The man is "an influential rapper" who is "affiliated with a violent group."

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What about protesters at Columbia and other universities who blocked entrances to Jewish students, also a civil rights crime? Will they receive even a month in prison, let alone five years? Granted, these occurred outside Washington, D.C., but everyone knows none of these college kids will serve a day in prison for barricading doors and harassing Jews.

Abortions at this clinic were heinous

In 2022, two years after Handy's protest inside the Washington Surgi-Clinic, she and another pro-life activist claim to have received a box containing the bodies of unborn babies, five of whom appeared to be nearly nine months gestation and possibly born alive. Handy said she received the remains, which were supposed to be incinerated, from a worker at the clinic. The remains and the doctor performing late-term abortions, Cesare Santangelo, became the focus of a House Oversight Committee Hearing on D.C. Crime in 2023.

A red-brick row house is seen where DC Metro Police said they found five fetuses inside where anti-abortion activists were living earlier this week in the Capitol Hill neighborhood on April 01, 2022 in Washington, DC. Nine people, some of whom lived or stayed in the house, were indicted Wednesday on federal civil rights counts, with prosecutors alleging that they violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act when they blockaded an abortion clinic with chain and rope in 2020. Authorities do not know how the fetuses were obtained or how they got into the home where anti-abortion activist Lauren Handy was staying before she was arrested.

The heinous, grisly nature of late-term abortions, which are still legal in Washington, D.C., and which Handy believed happened at the Washington Surgi-Clinic, specifically feticide, is why she protested there, according to court filings. In 2022, the Washington Post reported that according to the clinic's website, they performed abortions up until 27 weeks, the end of the second trimester.

During the committee hearing, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL) called for Santangelo to be stripped of his medical license after she learned that he was still performing late-term and potential partial birth abortions a year after five deceased unborn babies were found linked to the D.C.-based Washington Surgi-Clinic.

This is not reproductive health care. This is infanticide.

Changing minds on abortion: Did conservatives win the battle on abortion but lose the culture war on life?

Anti-abortion advocates need to stop committing crimes while trying to stop abortions

One of the many reasons conservatives who were opposed to abortions earned such a controversial reputation is that prior to Dobbs, it was relatively common for activists to make abortion clinics the sole focus of their zeal to reduce or ban abortions. They have prayed outside them, harassed them, bombed them and more.

While the righteous indignation to spare the lives of unborn babies is understandable, it is not and never has been, moral or justified to commit violence against abortion clinics or staff to stop abortions. Reports suggest that in the courtroom during sentencing, members of the crowd shouted, “You’re a hero, Lauren!” It's not heroic to block a clinic from opening for a few hours and go to prison. It's stupid. It's ineffective.

The clinic is still operating. It sounds like it shouldn't be. It's not clear why police did not investigate the fetal remains or the clinic. It may seem like all lawful means of holding this clinic accountable have amounted to nothing, but executing a protest inside the clinic still seems petty, futile and illegal. Now Handy will serve prison time and anti-abortion activists have yet another smear on their reputation. Not to mention, Handy kept the five unborn fetuses in her own home. Even presumably as evidence or proof of partial-birth abortion, that seems ghoulish and strange.

In February, news broke that the Department of Justice reportedly advised the Washington, D.C. Medical Examiner to dispose of the remains of five unborn babies, although several lawmakers called for autopsies and further investigations. D.C. police said the babies looked to have been aborted in accordance with the law.

Abortion continues to grip the country. Handy's severe sentence showcases real disdain for anti-abortion activists and hypocrisy on civil rights laws. But her actions of blocking the clinic and committing two federal crimes weren't wise either. The real crux of the matter, which seems to be whether or not the clinic is allowing partial-birth abortions or infanticide, should be handled by law enforcement. Vigilante justice isn't the answer. If law enforcement maintains there's no wrongdoing, the matter can still be pressed by concerned citizens and local lawmakers.

Now, instead of focusing on what's happening at the Washington Sergi-Clinic, the spotlight is on Handy and her lengthy sentence. This seems counterintuitive to her cause.

Nicole Russell is an opinion columnist with USA TODAY. She lives in Texas with her four kids.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: An anti-abortion activist got too much jail time. She's still wrong.