At 11 a.m. on Jan. 18, five pro-life activists entered the Options for Women abortion center in Plainfield, N.J. They talked to the women in the waiting room and handed out roses with printed information about local pro-life pregnancy centers tied to the stems. Police arrived and told the activists to leave, but four of them chose to remain in the facility. Officers arrested them about an hour later.
This nonviolent demonstration was the 17th “Red Rose Rescue,” a recently developed pro-life tactic. The rescue operations draw inspiration from the abortion center blockades pro-life activists held during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time, people would try to protect unborn babies by locking arms in the hallways of abortion centers or chaining themselves to cars in front of the facilities’ doors, effectively stopping the businesses from operating for the day.
Congress squelched this pro-life rescue movement, also known as “sit-ins,” through the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), a 1994 law signed by President Bill Clinton that prohibits pro-life advocates from blocking the entrance to an abortion center. The harsh penalties imposed under the act, which include up to three years in jail and fines up to $250,000, deterred such activities.
Monica Migliorino Miller was involved in the sit-in movement in Chicago and Milwaukee during the late 1970s and the 1980s. Before the FACE Act, she served jail time ranging from one to seven months for her participation in pro-life sit-ins. After her second stint in jail, Miller said her desire to be at home for her son and daughter kept her from taking chances. “I think a lot of leaders in the movement … started to have children, and that made it a lot more difficult to carry on with risking getting arrested and going to jail,” she said.
But now that their children are grown, Miller and other former rescuers want to get back in the game. Miller did not participate in the Red Rose Rescue in New Jersey, but she helped come up with the tactic. “A number of us never actually gave up on the idea,” Miller said. In April 2017, she joined a group of leaders from the old sit-in movement in St. Louis to discuss how to reinvigorate the cause.
Miller said she was the one who brought up the idea of entering the abortion centers to talk to women instead of blocking hallways. “Why do we have to block doors?” she asked. “Why is that necessary when we know that just being in the clinic itself will achieve the same result? It’ll shut down the clinic, and we’ll have the opportunity to talk to the moms. … It’s more personal, and giving them the roses is a gesture of love and peace.”
Another benefit of this new form of rescue is the FACE Act does not apply to it. Most of the Red Rose Rescues so far have resulted in trespassing charges for the participants, but authorities have charged some rescuers with felonies. After a Red Rose Rescue in Michigan in 2017, a judge prohibited Miller from going within 500 feet of any abortion center in the country. After she violated the prohibition, she served 33 days in jail—her first time behind bars since the 1990s.
Miller said she doesn’t think many pro-life advocates would want to go back to conducting traditional sit-ins after seeing the success of the Red Rose Rescues.
“I think it is more effective in terms of getting the moms to leave,” she said. “We know that 12 women with a rescue we did in [Michigan] didn’t even go through with their abortions.”
If not for the barrier of the FACE Act, Miller said, this new and more personal form of rescue may never have emerged.