Justice Department charges anti-abortion activist with assaulting elderly clinic escort

Federal prosecutors have charged an anti-abortion activist in Pennsylvania after he allegedly shoved a 72-year-old clinic escort, twice, outside a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia last year.

Mark Houck was charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrance Act, a 30-year-old law that makes it a federal crime to use force with intent to injure, intimidate or interfere with reproductive healthcare services.

If convicted, he faces up to 11 years in prison and a maximum fine of $350,000.

The charges stem from two separate incidents involving a longtime volunteer clinic escort identified in the indictment as B.L., who was escorting two patients from the clinic when Mr Houck allegedly “verbally confronted” B.L. and “forcefully shoved” him to the ground.

B.L.’s injuries required medical attention, according to federal prosecutors.

The case has ignited a political firestorm among far-right anti-abortion activists, alleging that the case exemplifies the “weaponization of the FBI” and “persecution” against “ordinary Americans” under President Joe Biden’s administration, according to Pennsylvania’s Republican candidate for governor Doug Mastriano.

“This show of force carried out by the Biden regime against ordinary Americans is an abuse of power that stands against the fundamental principles on which our country was founded,” he said in a statement on Saturday.

B.L. has served as a clinic escort for roughly 30 years, according to federal prosecutors.

Mr Houck – the co-founder of The King’s Men, a Catholic outreach group, according to the group’s website – has protested outside Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center for 20 years, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

His group’s website describes him as an “author, lecturer, radio host, activist and passionate Catholic” who “has been speaking to thousands of men about a variety of topics related to the development of authentic masculinity” and written “numerous articles, brochures and publications on the topics of pornography, homosexuality, abortion, teen sexuality, parenting and masculine spirituality.”

He protests for several hours every Wednesday outside the clinic.

His wife Ryan-Marie Houck told far-right Catholic website LifeSiteNews that “25 to 30 FBI agents” arrived at their home roughly two hours outside Philadelphia to make the arrest.

She claimed that agents pointed “big, huge rifles” at them.

“The kids were all just screaming. It was all just very scary and traumatic,” she told the website.

The FACE Act was signed into law in 1994, drafted in response to a wave of attacks against abortion providers and the murder of Dr David Gunn, who was fatally shot during a protest after his face appeared on “Wanted”-style posters made by an anti-abortion activist group.

Anti-abortion activists have killed 11 people – including doctors, clinic employees, a clinic escort, a security guard and a police officer – between 1993 and 2016, according to abortion rights advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. At least 26 attempted murders were recorded within that same period, according to the group.

Over the past 50 years, anti-abortion activists have directed more than 7,200 acts of violence against providers, including 42 bombings, 185 arsons and dozens of threats, according to the group.

The Justice Department has also chronicled more than a dozen threats of violence against abortion providers in recent years.

Federal investigators have also been on high alert following the US Supreme Court’s decision on 24 June to revoke the constitutional right to abortion care, which has triggered a wave of state-level laws outlawing or severely restricting access to care in more than a dozen states.

Jacqueline Maguire, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia division, said in a statement that “put simply, violence is never the answer.”

“Violating the FACE Act by committing a physical assault is a serious crime for which the FBI will work to hold offenders accountable,” she said.

“Assault is always a serious offense, and under the FACE Act, if the victim is targeted because of their association with a reproductive healthcare clinic, it is a federal crime,” according to a statement from US Attorney Anthony Romero. “Our office and the Department of Justice are committed to prosecuting crimes which threaten the safety and rights of all individuals.”