When pro-life activist Mark Houck got into a minor altercation outside a Philadelphia abortion clinic, he had no idea it would turn into a federal case.
In October 2021, Houck was praying and offering sidewalk counseling outside the Planned Parenthood Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center with his 12-year-old son, Mark Jr. According to court testimony, 72-year-old volunteer clinic escort Bruce Love approached the two and made rude remarks, reportedly using profanity and telling the elder Houck, “Why don’t you go home and masturbate? Go be with your pedophile priests.”
When Love began talking to his son, Houck and Love exchanged words. Houck shoved him to the ground. The escort was not seriously injured, and local authorities who looked into the incident declined to prosecute.
But a year after the event — and months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — the Biden Justice Department charged Houck with violating federal law.
“This is not a state court prosecution for assault,” said defense lawyer Brian McMonagle during the trial. “They made a federal case out of a shove!”
Houck was charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, which makes it a federal crime “to use force with the intent to injure, intimidate, and interfere with anyone because that person is a provider of reproductive health care.” He faced up to 11 years in prison if convicted.
Houck and his supporters believed the case was more about creating pro-abortion political theater than enforcing the law — a theory bolstered by the Justice Department’s decision to send a swarm of well-armed FBI agents to seize the unarmed, middle-aged father of seven from his home.
Peter Breen with the Thomas More Society has been part of the Houck defense team. He said attorneys had offered to bring him in “at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer.” Instead, the feds conducted a high-profile arrest.
“Think about that. Twenty-five FBI agents go to his home as if he were somehow a danger,” Breen said. “It’s clear that intimidation is one of the tactics being used by the federal government. And I can tell you that I received calls from sidewalk counselors who were intimidated. They’re wondering, ‘Am I going to be next?’”
During the trial, federal prosecutor Ashley Nicole Martin told jurors the case was about the alleged crime, not politics.
“It’s not about pro-choice. It’s not about pro-life,” she said. “It’s about freedom of access, and politics doesn’t come into it.”
But prosecutions of the rarely-used FACE Act jumped by 600 percent last year, evidence critics say that abortion politics is motivating federal action.
On Monday, after just an hour or so of deliberations, the jury sided with Houck, acquitting him of all charges.
“We are, of course, thrilled with the outcome,” Breen said. “Mark and his family are now free of the cloud that the Biden administration threw upon them. We took on Goliath – the full might of the United States government – and won.”
And, Breen added, “our hope here is that message was sent to Washington, D.C. to stop this harassment.”
It is a view shared by pro-life advocates across the country, who were happy with the outcome but angry over the DOJ’s actions.
“Mark Houck never should have been prosecuted, let alone treated like a terrorist in an early-morning FBI raid with a SWAT team,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) via Twitter. “[Attorney General] Merrick Garland should be ashamed for using [the] DOJ as a political weapon to target pro-life activists.”
Prosecutors declined to comment after the verdict.
Philadelphia attorney and pro-life activist Christine Flowers said, “As a lawyer, I am always deeply gratified when I see the justice system work as it was designed to work: Protect the innocent and convict the guilty. With the acquittal of Mark Houck, it is clear that the jurors who heard this case understood that essential principle.”
And if the goal of the prosecution was to discourage activists like Houck, it didn’t work.
“Two hundred percent I’m going back,” Houck said as he left the courthouse. “I’m a little wiser, but I’m more bold than ever.”