Woman known as ‘matriarch of pro-life activism’ is facing 11 years in prison

Joan Andrews Bell was 24 years old when she learned that the Supreme Court had legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. It changed the course of her life, leading her up to this moment in 2023 at age 74, as she stands trial on federal charges for rescue action she and other pro-lifers took to save babies from abortion in October 2020 at the D.C.-based Washington Surgi-Clinic run by abortionist Cesare Santangelo. They are charged with conspiracy against rights and a FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act offense.

The start of Joan’s pro-life work

After news broke in 2022 that Roe might be overturned, Joan spoke with LifeSiteNews about her mission. “I was overwhelmed by shock [at Roe v. Wade] and because I had studied about Nazi Germany as a preteen and teenager and knew how horrific that government had been even though it was a country that had been Christian… and that had horrified me when I studied it,” she said. “And here, I always believed America was a moral country, a Christian country, a decent country, so I was in total shock and very upset because it’s like we had become Nazi Germany.”

She was shocked a second time when she didn’t hear about the Supreme Court decision from the Church. She was looking for direction and didn’t receive it, so she began her own path to save babies from abortion, feeling that she couldn’t face God upon her death if she didn’t do everything she could to protect them.



Arrests and jail time

Since Joan began her rescue work, she has been arrested more than 200 times and has spent more than 6 years combined in prison as a result, including a combined two and a half years in solitary confinement.  At one point, she had a tiny cell where she could only take two steps in one direction and four in the other. The window was painted over.

“I did get claustrophobic at times but when you thank Jesus for everything, it just leaves you,” she said. “That panic, that claustrophobia — when you say, ‘Thank you, Jesus for this little bit I can do for you,’ and you think of the babies when they are dismembered alive without an anesthetic. And you say, this is nothing, you know.”

After she spent two years in prison in Florida, including months in solitary confinement, in the 1980s, other pro-lifers were inspired. The group Operation Rescue was launched.

After the Florida governor commuted her sentence in 1988, Joan went to Pittsburgh to serve time in jail for rescue action in which she participated in 1985. However, she refused Judge Raymond Novak’s sentence of three years probation with the promise not to participate in rescues again. The probation took effect in 1990 after her attempts to appeal did not work. The judge put out a warrant for her arrest.

In 1991, she married Chris Bell, president and co-founder of Good Counsel Homes, which has live-in facilities for pregnant women in difficult situations. Together, they have one biological daughter and have adopted six more, including children with disabilities. It was when attempting to adopt their son from Mexico that the arrest warrant from Judge Novak was discovered. She was arrested and sent to see him.

Though fellow pro-lifers begged her to take probation and never rescue again, she adamantly refused, citing Pope John Paul II who said unjust laws should be resisted in a peaceful manner.

On January 15, 1998, Joan stood in court before Judge Novak and read a letter she wrote explaining why she could not comply with any order stating she was wrong to trespass to save babies, reported Human Life Review. It was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Joan wrote:

It is my humble privilege to follow my conscience and my Catholic faith in defense of the innocent and the just. I will not cooperate with immoral, unjust laws corruptly and cowardly imposed on the American people for the sake of pretending to solve social and economic problems by murdering innocent children.

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

Judge Novak, a former Catholic priest, called her a woman “of deep conviction and sincere belief.” He added, “My obligation is not to decide the abortion issue, which has torn our country apart. 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.”

Saying his hands were tied, he sentenced her to 3 to 23 months in jail. Joan fell to the floor as part of her non-compliance and was carried out of the courtroom by four officers.

Chris Bell said of his wife, “It’s a political issue she’s being sentenced on. They are trying to gain compliance to a particular view against her conscience.” He referred to her as a political prisoner.

After 10 weeks, prison officials petitioned the judge for an early release for Joan, and the day after her early release, she was back in court testifying on behalf of a pregnant prisoner who wanted to enter the hospital for her child’s delivery. “If for no other reason,” said Joan, “being in jail was worth it just to save that one baby.”

Since 2017, Joan has been participating in Red Rose Rescues, entering abortion facilities to hand out roses to the women.

Terrisa Bukovinac, founder of Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising (PAAU), has praised Joan as a “hero” and a “mentor,” and shared that Joan took part in PAAU’s first rescue action.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, has called Joan “the matriarch of the pro-life movement and pro-life activism” and an “icon of courage” who has been a personal “encouragement” to him.

Joan told LifeSiteNews correspondent Jim Hale, “Rescue is totally non-violent. It’s loving the babies and I’m not going to judge their reasoning. I’m not going to judge them [the abortionists]. I just disagree with them.”

This week, witness testimony began in the trial against Joan and fellow pro-lifers Jonathan Darnel and Jean Marshall. They each face up to 11 years in prison. Read more about the trial here.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to reflect that Joan Andrews Bell has been arrested more than 200 times. 

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