National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

One Woman’s Convictions of Steel

BY Clay Renick

January 4-10, 1998 Issue | Posted 1/4/98 at 2:00 PM

 

The prospect of time in jail hasn't distracted Joan Andrews Bell from her mission to save the unborn

Joan Andrews Bell is prepared to go to prison before she stops pro-life activities. But the mother of two said she would “rather die than compromise my faith and my love for the children.”

Bell has been arrested more than 200 times for civil disobedience at abortion mills in this country and overseas. It led to approximately five years in prison with almost two of those in solitary confinement.

Her recent sentence included three years' probation and an order not to participate in further rescues. But she refused to obey saying it would violate her conscience.

“It's a great privilege to stand up for the pre-born and truth. The whole thing comes down to trusting God and trying to do his will.”

Protests against abortion date back to Jan. 22, 1973 when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion.

“It was like a great darkness descended on me and our country,” said Bell, who first heard about rescuing in 1979.

The latest charge against her is tied to a 1985 rescue attempt and arrest for trespassing in Pittsburgh. “We shut the place down that day,” recalled Doris Grady, a mother of two and member of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Shady Side, an area of Pittsburgh, Pa. Grady was on the 13-member team with Bell and they wanted to shut down the Women's Health Services, the third largest abortion provider in the country.

“To sit in front of the door would not help,” Grady said. “We would have been dragged away in minutes.”

So, the team went inside the clinic and locked themselves into six rooms. The police were able to pick the locks, but Bell used a table to barricade herself in until police busted down the door. Grady later explained how “for the first time I felt like I was doing something to end abortion even for a day. Everything else seemed futile-writing letters, picketing…” The team was charged with criminal trespassing. Despite receiving two years' probation, Grady participated at another rescue three months later.

The following year Bell was arrested during a rescue in Pensacola, Fla., and sentenced to two years in a maximum security prison in Broward County. She received clemency and officials transferred her to Pittsburgh in Oct. 1988, where Judge Raymond Novak gave her a three-year probation period and ordered her not to participate in further rescues. She refused, filed an appeal and lost. Her current sentencing date is Jan. 15. Novak could imprison her for contempt of court and failure to comply.

“I hope they don't put me in jail. I have a young family,” Bell stated. But she also has her convictions. Abiding by the probation agreement would mean compromising her beliefs as she would be forced to stop participating in rescues.

“God saved us,” she explained. “The greatest rescue of all time [was] his death on the cross.”

What may happen to Bell is incomprehensible in a democratic society, according to Father Benedict Groeschel CFR. “The facts of the case show that this woman was treated the way people were treated in Soviet Russia in communism times.”

Bell's attorney in the case, Tom Charles, said “she has been challenging the abortion law for years.… Her fight is with abortion and the law, not the courts or the judge.”

The judge in the case, Raymond Novak, is a former Catholic priest.

“He has done what he believes is fair,” said Charles. “He understands that Joan is a person of principle.”

“It is a travesty of justice,” added Keith Fournier, president of Catholic Alliance. “It's a wake up call for all of us that a woman who spent all of her life saving children would go to jail.” Fournier is also an attorney and founder of the American Center for Law and Justice. “If anyone is criminal it is not Joan Andrews Bell,” he said. “It's the people who are killing children.”

Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, recently awarded the Poverello Medal—named after St. Francis of Assisi—to Bell and her husband Chris at the campus in Ohio. It was the school's fiftieth anniversary celebration and a public reminder of the cost involved in pro-life rescues.

“Chris and Joan have had a tremendous impact on the pro-life movement in the United States,” said Father Michael Scanlan TOR, president of the university.

“The university awards the medal to organizations and individuals who exemplify the ideals of St. Francis,” said school spokesman Brian O'Neel. Past recipients include Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Charles Colson.

Bell said the Franciscan University had shown great support for the unborn and for Operation Rescue. Speaking about the award, she said, “we're very humbled by it.”

Chris Bell became involved in pro-life work after being on staff with Covenant House in New York. “I saw homeless women and children with no place to go,” he says.

Bell heard about an empty convent that belonged to a church in Hoboken, N.J. Father Groeschel helped secure the building and start the program. Since then they've acquired four additional homes in Spring Valley, N.Y., Staten Island, the Bronx, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Another home is being started in Norwalk, Conn., with the assistance of the international Catholic lay organization, the Knights of Malta.

Good Counsel has helped nearly 2,500 women with shelter, workshops, baby-sitters, and educational assistance. Their hot line alone receives 2000 calls a year.

The Bells have a five-year-old daughter named Mary Louise. They're also in the process of adopting Emiliano, who is nine years old and handicapped.

“I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have my faith,” says Joan. “It's much more difficult (in jail) when you have little children.”

Public opinion may help sway opinion in the sentencing phase. Case officials encourage respectful letters. Correspondence to Judge Novak should be addressed to: Allegheny Court House, Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Pro-life leaders are also planning a rally in Pittsburgh for Bell on Jan. 14. For information, call Kathy O'Keefe at (201) 795-0637. Pregnant mothers can also find emergency assistance at Good Counsel, 800-723-8331.

Clay Renick writes from Martinez, Ga.