The Biden administration’s targeting of pro-lifers will be on full display this week with the Department of Justice’s prosecution of sidewalk counselor Mark Houck beginning on Tuesday.
Houck’s case first received national attention when upwards of 20 FBI agents swarmed his rural Pennsylvania home in September of 2022 to arrest him on charges that he had violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or “FACE,” Act. The FBI executed the unnecessary SWAT-like raid — reportedly complete with ballistic shields, a battering ram, and multiple agents aiming long guns at Houck — while his wife and seven children watched in horror.
The spectacle was completely unnecessary, as prosecutors in such cases typically issue a summons to appear rather than execute an arrest warrant. In fact, Houck’s attorney informed the prosecutor that he would accept a summons on Houck’s behalf.
Here’s what you need to know about the government’s specious criminal case against Houck.
The federal indictment on which the FBI arrested Houck alleged two criminal counts under FACE. The FACE Act, which was passed in 1994 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, criminalizes any person who:
by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because that person is or has been, or in order to intimidate such person or any other person or any class of persons from, obtaining or providing reproductive health services.
Congress passed the FACE Act in response to a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that abortion facilities could not sue pro-life protesters who obstruct access to abortion facilities under a federal statute that prohibits conspiracies to interfere with civil rights. Since its passage, the FACE Act has been used against pro-life protesters or sidewalk counselors outside abortion facilities.
Even immediately after its passage in 1994, however, the Clinton Department of Justice reportedly prosecuted only about 10 people per year, and the Bush DOJ prosecuted an average of two people per year. As of May 2022, there were only 101 prosecutions under the FACE Act total, but the Biden administration has arrested some 26 pro-lifers for alleged violations of the FACE Act in 2022 alone, with one of these being the case against Houck.
The Biden administration’s criminal case against Houck stems from a single incident on Oct. 13, 2021, when Houck was involved in a physical and verbal altercation with Bruce Love — a “volunteer patient escort” referred to merely as B.L. throughout the indictment — outside the Planned Parenthood Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center in Philadelphia “PPC.” According to the indictment, Houck was a “protestor” outside the Planned Parenthood, and he and Love were familiar with each other.
The first count in the indictment charged that Houck “shoved B.L. to the ground as B.L. attempted to escort two PPC patients,” in violation of the FACE Act. The second count alleged that Houck “verbally confronted B.L. and forcefully shoved B.L. to the ground in front of the PPC, causing injuries to B.L. that required medical attention,” also in violation of the FACE Act.
To convict Houck, the prosecution must prove Houck’s altercation with Love was “intentional,” and that Houck acted because of Love’s status as a provider of so-called “reproductive health services.” In addition, the FACE Act requires the person who is “injured, intimidated, or interfere[ed] with” to be “obtaining or providing reproductive health services.”
In other words, the prosecution must first prove Love was assisting with abortion services, or a woman was seeking to obtain such services, at the time of the alleged assault.
The Problem for the Government
The government will be unable to prove either scenario if the facts of the encounter are as Houck claims. According to Houck, his first encounter with Love occurred when Houck was talking with two women who had already left the Planned Parenthood facility and Houck was escorting these women to a crisis pregnancy center across the street. If Houck’s version of events is true, it would be Love who allegedly violated the FACE Act, not Houck, as the FACE Act also protects pro-life pregnancy centers.
The second encounter between Love and Houck occurred, according to Houck, when Love approached him and his 12-year-old son and began to verbally harass Houck’s son using vulgar language. As there was no patient seeking services from Planned Parenthood involved in this encounter, to establish a violation of the FACE Act, the prosecutors must establish that Love qualified as a “provider of reproductive health services.”
The FACE Act defines “reproductive health services” broadly to include “counseling or referral services related to the human reproductive system, including services relating to pregnancy or the termination of a pregnancy.” So the initial question will be whether a “volunteer patient escort” qualifies within this definition.
Even if the court agrees that Love qualifies as a “volunteer patient escort,” however, that is still not enough to create criminal liability because the prosecution must still prove Love was doing so at the time of the encounter and that Houck’s alleged altercation was motivated by Love’s status, something the facts, as told by Houck, negate.
It will be up to a jury to decide what really happened. But given that Love previously filed a criminal complaint with the local authorities — which state prosecutors dismissed — and that in that complaint, Love made no mention of his encounter with Houck and the two women walking to the crisis pregnancy center, Love’s credibility will likely be lacking.
A jury could begin hearing testimony as early as this afternoon, according to Peter Breen, the lead attorney for Houck. Breen also told me the trial could be over as early as Friday.
If convicted, Houck faces up to “11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and fines of up to $350,000,” according to a DOJ press release. Based on Houck’s lack of any criminal history, however, the governing Federal Sentencing Guidelines would recommend a much lower range of six to 12 months.
But that is assuming both a conviction and one that could withstand an appeal, neither of which seems likely given the facts presented by Houck and the apparent lack of a conflicting version of events. Even an acquittal of Houck, however, would still represent a victory for the Biden administration, which succeeded in chilling pro-lifer activities through the raid on Houck’s home and his prosecution.