6 activists convicted of illegally blocking abortion clinic in Tennessee

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A Tennessee jury has convicted six anti-abortion protesters of violating federal laws after they blocked the entrance of a reproductive clinic outside Nashville nearly three years ago.

The jury's decision, handed down late Tuesday after a weeklong trial, marks the latest development in a case that has been closely watched by conservative groups, who have accused the federal government of unfairly targeting abortion opponents by using 1994 federal law designed to protect abortion clinics from obstruction and threats. Reproductive rights supporters counter the law, known as Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or the FACE Act, is more critical than ever in shielding abortion providers from violence now that the constitutional right to abortion has been revoked.

At issue is a 2021 “blockade” held outside a reproductive health clinic in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a town 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) east of Nashville, nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The event was organized by anti-abortion supporters who used social media to promote and live-stream actions that they hoped would prevent the clinic from performing abortions, according to court documents.

At the time, abortion was still legal in Tennessee. It is now currently banned at all stages of pregnancy under a law that has very narrow exemptions.

Prosecutors say participants stationed themselves throughout the office building where carafem health clinic was located and, later, several began recording themselves “leading a rescue,” a term commonly known among anti-abortion activists as dissuading women from obtaining an abortion. Prosecutors added that videos from that day showed people blocking the clinic's entrances and others attempting to engage with police as a delay tactic. Around 20 people attended the blockade.

While a federal grand jury initially indicted 11 people who participated in the blockade last year, six were convicted on Tuesday. Those are Chester Gallagher, Paul Vaughn, Heather Idoni, Calvin Zastrow, Coleman Boyd, and Dennis Green. They face up 10 1/2 years of prison time and fines of up to $260,000. Sentencing hearings will take place July 2.

“These defendants knowingly chose to violate laws they disagreed with,” said U.S. Attorney Henry C. Leventis in a statement. “The jury’s verdict today is a victory for the rule of law in this country and a reminder that we cannot pick and choose which laws we follow.”

Attorneys representing the defendants say they plan on appealing the convictions. The legal team has described the 2021 demonstration as a “peaceful life-affirming gathering" and has accused the federal justice department of prosecuting “pro-life activists" ever since the Supreme Court's landmark 2022 abortion decision.

“This was a peaceful demonstration by entirely peaceable citizens — filled with prayer, hymn-singing, and worship — oriented toward persuading expecting mothers not to abort their babies," said Steve Crampton, an attorney with the Thomas More Society.

Before Roe was overturned, the Justice Department oversaw just a handful of FACE Act violation cases. In 2021, just three cases involving three defendants were charged, and in 2020, the agency handled just one case.

By 2022, that number jumped to 11 cases involving 29 defendants. And last year, there were 10 cases and 22 defendants.

Advocates like the National Abortion Federation say the uptick in cases reflects the rise in harassment and violence abortion clinics have faced since state abortion bans have been allowed to go into effect.

In a 2022 report, the organization said abortion providers across the U.S. saw noticeable spikes in the number of death threats, stalkings, burglaries and arsons compared with the year prior.

Yet a growing number of conservative groups and Republican lawmakers have responded to these numbers by saying law enforcement has downplayed similar threats and violence against Catholic churches and so-called “crisis pregnancy centers,” which counsel against abortions.

Some have called on the Justice Department to apply the 1994 federal law more equitably and use it to investigate those who target crisis pregnancy centers. Meanwhile, a handful of Republican congressional members have introduced legislation that would repeal the protections altogether.

President Bill Clinton signed the FACE Act into law in 1994 following a string of high-profile attacks against abortion clinics, which included Dr. David Gunn being shot and killed outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida in 1993 — marking the first abortion provider killed in the U.S.