Joan Andrews Bell Returns to Jail

PITTSBURGH–After refusing to comply with the terms of her probation before a Pittsburgh judge Jan. 15, pro-life activist Joan Andrews Bell was carried from the court room by four officers and began serving a jail sentence of three to 23 months. More than 100 supporters who came from as far away as Tennessee and Chicago, began singing, Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow, as she was carried out, and her husband and their two children looked on in stunned silence.

“She is truly considered a political prisoner,” her husband, Chris Bell, said to reporters who crowded outside the court room. “It is a political issue she is being sentenced on. She will cooperate in no way with the legal system that allows the killing of innocent little children.”

After receiving the sentence from Judge Raymond Novak in the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas, Bell lay down on the floor in a form of non-cooperation. She has used such passive resistance in most of her more than 200 arrests during more than 10 years of peaceful protests against abortion with Operation Rescue.

The response to the sentencing was swift and harsh.

“This dramatic action on the part of Judge Novak is a reprehensible attack on any semblance of free speech and human rights in America,” said Father Richard Welch CSsR, president of Human Life International in Front Royal, Va. “Joan's story illustrates the great moral divide in America and draws a stark contrast between those who sacrifice self in place of the cause of life, and those who sacrifice life in the interest of self.”

In an eloquent, heartfelt affidavit Bell filed with the court, she said that medical science proves that life begins at conception and her Catholic faith requires her to resist unjust laws. She cited John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) and the example of Martin Luther King, on whose birthday she was sentenced.

“To accept probation would be to accept the lie that I harmed society by trying peacefully, prayerfully, and nonviolently to save children from brutal death by abortion,” she wrote.

After informing the judge that she would not register for probation, she said to reporters, “I cannot violate my conscience or offend God.”

Her husband, director of Good Counsel Homes, with five shelters for unwed mothers and their babies in the New York City area, said the sentence was unjust but that her jail time will have great spiritual benefits.

“We'll be able to do reparation certainly for our own sins, and hopefully for the sins of abortion,” he told reporters. “Joan has done tremendous good in jail in the past, praying and witnessing to the other inmates.”

Bell's sister, Susan Brindle, who came from Tennessee with her husband and seven of their children, was in tears after the hearing.

“She knows the truth about abortion and that's why she is willing to sacrifice,” said Brindle. “I love her so much. She's doing this for all of us. The judge thought he was doing the only thing he could, but you can't legalize murder. Killing is never the answer.”

Bell's lead attorney, Richard Traynor, head of a pro-life legal center in New Jersey, said he would appeal the sentence. During the hearing he pleaded a necessity defense, that she was justified in committing a lesser offense of trespassing in order to prevent a greater one, the killing of unborn babies in abortion.

“I think this is a disgrace,” Traynor said afterward. “The sentence is a violation of conscience.”

The Pittsburgh case dates back to May 1985, when Bell was arrested at Women's Health Services and convicted in November 1985 for criminal trespass. She was finally sentenced in 1988 and given three years probation by Judge Novak, a former Jesuit priest.

She refused the terms of probation, appealed the sentence, and lost. Awarrant for her to appear in Pittsburgh to register with the probation board was issued in 1990. The outstanding warrant was holding up the adoption proceedings for 8-year-old Emiliano, a handicapped boy from Mexico, and the warrant came up in background check.

She was arrested at her home in New Jersey last Sept. 26, and eventually agreed to appear before Judge Novak. He vacated the warrant so she could proceed with the adoption and gave her until the Jan. 15 hearing. In the latest procedure, she appeared before him the morning of Jan. 15, he asked her to register with the probation board down the hall and return at 2:00 p.m. During that period, she went to Mass, prayed with a group outside the clinic where she was arrested in 1985, and prayed the rosary on the street, while walking back to court house.

In the afternoon hearing, Judge Novak said, “My obligation is not to decide the abortion issue, which has torn our country apart….”

Addressing Bell, he said, “You are following what you believe to be the law of God. I am sworn to uphold the laws of men. If you are right, I have a higher court to answer to. That is not lost on me as well.”

Supporters, though visibly shaken, expressed hope that Bell would serve only the minimum sentence. Attorney Tom Charles, another member of Bell's defense team, was skeptical. “Obviously Joan won't change. It's up to the judge.”

Brian Caulfield writes from New York. Michael Schmeidicke contributed to this story.