Joan Andrews Bell
by Patrick Henry Reardon
Yesterday, January 15, 1998, here in Pittsburgh Judge Raymond Novak sentenced Joan Andrews Bell to incarceration from 3 to 23 months. One of her attorneys, challenging that sentence before the bar, pointed out the irony to his honor that it was the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. The two cases were clearly parallel. In both instances it was the matter of citizens heading off to jail for choosing the superior claims of conscience over civil laws that they considered unjust. Both individuals very explicitly appealed to the principle that, should the two things come into conflict, it is better to obey God’s law than man’s.
Joan’s case has nowhere near the notoriety of Dr. King’s, of course. In fact, today’s final edition of the major daily here, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, evidently esteeming the event very little, reduced its coverage to a captioned photograph.
Such lack of interest is unfortunate because Joan’s history is truly remarkable, bordering on unique. She was in her early 20s when Roe v. Wade became national law a quarter of a century ago, and Joan took that judicial decree almost as a personal affront. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of her life since that day has been spent (in the strict sense of consumed, eaten up) in aggressive, sustained opposition to it. She is a figure well known and easily recognized at abortion chambers all over the country. Likewise in courtrooms and jails. Arrested nearly 200 times, Joan has been convicted of felony trespass 57 times. In Florida she was sentenced to five years imprisonment, half of which was spent in solitary confinement.
In her early 40s Joan managed to stay out of prison long enough to get married, and she is now the mother of a five-year-old daughter. She and her husband likewise adopted a very small crippled son from Mexico, and both children, along with a host of nephews and nieces, were prominent in that Allegheny County courtroom yesterday, sitting on the floor in front of its jury section. Other family members and about 100 friends filled up every vacant space and much of the hallway outside, virtually all of them tolling their rosaries.
On the previous evening a special gathering had been organized at the hall adjacent to Pittsburgh’s Roman Catholic cathedral. Billed as a rally, it more closely resembled a prayer meeting, even a revival. Indeed, it was one of the most incredible gatherings I have ever attended. There is hardly anything so humbling as spending the evening with the sorts of folks who cluster around Joan Andrews Bell, and I felt like a genuine slacker in the midst of so much zeal and selfless dedication. They were the Rescue America folks, in the main, whose intensity of commitment puts the rest of us pro-lifers to shame. The majority of the more than 100 people present had evidently been to jail—some of them numerous times. And they all seemed to know one another, even though they came from all over the country. In fact, I was apparently so conspicuous as a stranger that Joan came over and gave me an individual welcome.
The opening speaker that night was Peg Lesic, arguably the best-known pro-lifer in Pennsylvania, who came surprisingly close to being elected governor four years ago and, as the polls show, stands a good chance to win this time. Her theme for the evening? Well, Holy Mary, the Mother of God, naturally. What else would one expect a gubernatorial candidate to talk about? Mrs. Lesic spoke on the first chapter of Luke and the second chapter of John, and then gave a long, very moving meditation on Mary at the foot of the Cross.
In fact, nearly all the speakers that night had something to say about the blessed Mother of our Lord, for the Rescue America folks seem to be on very tender and familiar terms with her. During the rally the only prayer recited by all of us together was the Hail Mary, though we did also sing more stanzas of “Amazing Grace” than I have sung in years.
The next speaker was a tall, bearded and bald, ascetic-looking Capuchin friar, dressed in his grey habit, who preached on 1 John 3:13–17—“Marvel not if the world hates you. . . .” He knew what he was talking about, having spent a year in prison for a “chain-in” at an abortion chamber in Allentown, Penn. He looked and sounded like someone just arrived from the summit of Mount Sinai, or Mount Athos, the sort of man that the powers of this world hardly know what to make of and are completely embarrassed by. Elijah and John the Baptist would think him their kind of guy.
These were all genuine pacifists—deeply, deeply pacifists, and they were, like Joan, utterly fearless. I don’t know the last time I so felt like I was among folks who had just heard the Sermon on the Mount and were heading for Calvary. There was not the faintest trace of rancor or animosity anywhere. We were constantly being told: “The abortionist is not your enemy. There are hundreds of former abortionists in our ranks. The doctors we picket today will join us in the lines tomorrow. It is happening all the time.” There were special prayers, but not the slightest syllable of criticism, for Judge Novak.
The ranks of Rescue America have apparently diminished in the past few years, at least in the sense that one rarely sees TV news of their activities lately. Should the promoters of abortion seek comfort in that impression, however, they should probably think twice, because there is abundant evidence that abortion is on the wane all over this land. When Roe v. Wade came out twenty-five years ago, 57 percent of American hospitals taught abortion procedures. That figure is now down to 11 percent. In fact, one hears complaints from the pro-choice folks that the country is now suffering from a shortage of “reproductive services,” and fewer and fewer medical students are choosing it as a profession. At present 83 percent of American counties have no abortion facilities at all. The average age of abortion-doctors in this country is 58.
Meanwhile, certain new phenomena further point to pro-choice as a movement in decline. While 61 percent of Americans still favor the choice for abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, that figure drops to only 15 percent for the second trimester. Exactly half of Americans believe abortion to be murder (including 10 percent of those who believe it should be legal!). In some counties, especially in the South and Southwest, it is simply impossible for pro-choice candidates to get elected to political office. Abortion is distinctly distasteful and increasingly unpopular these days, and the pro-choice advocates constantly feel the need to say that they “regret its necessity.” Even as he sentenced Joan yesterday, Judge Novak spoke of “the abortion question that is tearing this country apart.”
Moreover, a whole new genre of pro-life literature has made its appearance, including autobiographical accounts of women recovering from the spiritual and psychological ravages of their abortions, as well as physicians who have publicly repented of having performed them. (Joan’s own daughter was delivered by Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former abortionist and well known for his films The Silent Scream and The Eclipse of Reason.) Some of the latter have now formed their own organization for pro-life activism.
It was not surprising, then, that Judge Novak clearly felt on the spot yesterday, and I must say that I was genuinely sorry for him. He admitted receiving thousands of letters in Joan’s support, including those from three Roman Catholic cardinals and several bishops who pleaded for mercy. There were similar telephone calls from all over the world. Expressing his admiration for Joan’s appeal to the law of God over the law of man, the judge went on to say that he was sworn to uphold the law of man. Yet, he admitted, he himself would “someday have to answer for this decision at that higher court.” When a local TV station interviewed me afterwards, I ventured to speak in the judge’s defense, pointing out that Joan’s sort of witness really wouldn’t make much sense or have much impact unless she did, in fact, go to jail for her convictions. One suspects that the judge himself had to realize this.
That was only one of the several ironies of the day. Another was the simple fact of Joan’s being treated as a criminal, her case being only one in a series of other criminal cases. Along with her many friends and supporters, I stood for hours in the courtroom and waited for her case to reach the top of the docket. Virtually all of us prayed the Rosary during the entire proceeding. (I picked the Sorrowful Mysteries as seeming most appropriate to the hour.) We listened to the various cases that were decided through the afternoon. In the one just before Joan’s, a 60-year-old man was given a prison sentence from five years to life for sexually molesting his granddaughter. Such were the sort of folk to whom American justice likened Joan Andrews Bell.
As they took her out, the courtroom broke into respectful applause for our heroine, and then we all started singing Thomas Ken’s “Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow.” I finally went down the stairs and out into the rain, my tired mind trying to take the measure of it all. Several blocks away, walking toward the Allegheny River, I passed a street preacher, of the sort you can see almost any day in downtown Pittsburgh, who was holding forth in stentorian voice: “God so loved the world. . . .”
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“Joan Andrews Bell” first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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