On Wednesday, police found five fetuses in the Capitol Hill home of Lauren Handy, a 28-year-old, self-described “Catholic anarchist” who is a fixture of the DC anti-abortion scene. Approached by a WUSA9 reporter, Handy declined to elaborate on the findings, except to say—quite correctly—that “people will freak out when they hear.”
The Handy-affiliated group Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU) emailed Washingtonian a press release late Thursday night that teases the existence of an unspecified number of “remaining aborted fetuses (that have not been turned over to police).” PAAU promises to reveal the number of remaining fetuses, in addition to answering other questions, at a press conference next week.
“I’ve got to tell you, the entire reproductive justice community is flabbergasted,” says Mila Johns, who has volunteered as a clinic escort in the DC area for 20 years. Johns says she’s tangled with Handy for about a decade, and though their behavior has long been alarming, “the fetal remains just were so out of left field. I don’t even know what to think about it.” (Johns and other sources who’ve interacted with Handy say Handy uses they/them pronouns. Handy did not respond to requests for comment.)
Clinic escorts like Johns shepherd patients to and from abortion clinics to help protect them from harassment, and Johns describes Handy as a notorious harasser, describing them in a tweet as “One of the most tiresome & obnoxious of our anti-choice clinic protesters.” Another local clinic escort, Shireen Shakouri, agrees, telling Washingtonian that Handy is a perpetual presence outside the Planned Parenthood in NoMa, where they create a “hostile, unwelcoming, and frankly scary” atmosphere.
Both clinic escorts describe Handy as offbeat. When Johns began encountering Handy around a decade ago, she recalls that “Lauren was barefoot at that time. That was their thing. They walked around barefoot. And then they went through a phase where they wore, like, what looks for all the world like a nun outfit made out of potato sacks?”
Handy’s politics are similarly hard to define. “Lauren is one of those anti-abortion folks who claim the mantle of being left-leaning in their political mindset,” Shakouri explains. “They seem to have anti-carceral views, I believe they’re vegan, all the trappings of a lefty, except for a desire to prohibit people from expressing their bodily autonomy.”
Handy first made the news this week prior to the discovery of the fetuses: on Wednesday, they were among nine activists charged with federal civil rights violations related to their October 2020 blockade of a reproductive health clinic in DC’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. The indictment alleges that the protesters “forcefully entered” the clinic in order to block its doors using “their bodies, furniture, chains and ropes.”
The activists claimed in a press release to have entered the clinic to “offer help to abortion-minded families, counsel them to change their minds about aborting their babies,” and “pray with them.” But the U.S. Attorney’s Office alleges that the protesters “intimidate[d] and interfere[d] with the clinic’s employees and a patient,” which violates federal law.
The protesters’ tactic, called a blockade, harkens back to the militant anti-abortion activism of a generation ago, which is frightening to some in the pro-choice movement. “The ’80s and ’90s were really violent,” says Shakouri. “There were multiple doctors murdered, as well as other clinic staff.”
In the past few years, Shakouri says she has felt an escalation. “The energy outside clinics has gotten more hostile,” she says, compared to when she first started volunteering around 2010. “Back then, there’d be a handful of frustrating personalities, but more often than not, there were folks just praying outside the clinic.” These days (roughly coinciding with the rise of Trump and increased state-level attacks on abortion rights), pro-life activists strike Shakouri as emboldened. “They kind of feel like they’re running a victory lap. We’re seeing even more blockades of clinics, and just general aggressive behavior.”
During her shifts as a clinic escort, Johns says she feels the need to “worst-case-scenario everything,” so she assumes that “anytime anyone walks in, if they’re not supposed to be there, they have a gun and they’re going to kill us.”
Though Shakouri and Johns have not seen Handy become physically violent, they say their tendency to berate escorts, patients, and even passers-by in startlingly personal terms stands out among the tactics commonly used by other protesters. Says Johns: “There’s always a [protester] who’s going to scream, ‘Be a real man, don’t let your woman kill your baby,’ or things like that. But Lauren would not back off.”
Johns was particularly shaken by a video Handy made while trespassing in a clinic where Johns used to work. Handy enters the clinic (which appears to be under renovation) and gives viewers a tour of the unoccupied back rooms. “That is such a security risk,” Johns says of publicly revealing a clinic’s layout. “Anyone with an agenda and a firearm, they know which rooms are procedure rooms, which rooms are counseling rooms, which rooms are recovery rooms. And that’s just a huge violation from the perspective of a clinic staffer.”
In its press release, the anti-abortion group affiliated with Handy claims that the fetal remains came to Handy through a “whistleblower” and suggests that the group turned the fetuses over to police for “forensic examination” of their “late gestational ages” and “apparent sustained injuries.” The press release also notes that “a Funeral Mass and ‘naming ceremony’ was offered for the deceased babies.”
As “ghoulish” as Johns says she finds the whole episode, she points out that clinic escorts like her “sign up for this.” That’s not true of patients, she says, who she worries will be traumatized by these latest events. “They’re just there trying to access legal, needed healthcare,” says Johns. “They shouldn’t have to think that some fanatic is going to…steal [their] fetal remains.”