Why Were There Fetuses in Her Refrigerator?

How a radical abortion opponent ended up dumpster-diving for remains.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
A woman with red hair and glasses holds a sign that reads
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters
A woman with red hair and glasses holds a sign that reads
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Reuters

This profile was originally published on May 13, 2022. On August 29, anti-abortion activist Lauren Handy and four others were convicted of illegally blockading an abortion clinic in Washington, D.C.

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Two days after police removed five fetuses from her refrigerator, Lauren Handy sits barefoot in rumpled clothes in a fellow anti-abortion protester’s cluttered Washington, D.C., apartment. She and the other activist, Terrisa Bukovinac, claim to have obtained a box of these fetuses and 110 smaller ones from a medical-waste-truck driver outside a D.C. abortion clinic. The 28-year-old cries sporadically while talking about the fetuses she’d held days earlier: “I’ve only ever wanted to love and help others,” Handy tells me.

Overnight, she became a public figure, regarded as a hero by the anti-abortion movement and a creepy fetus hoarder by everyone else. Abortion-rights activists were frustrated, as the salacious story seemed to crowd out news of unrelated criminal charges against Handy: On March 30, the U.S. Department of Justice accused her and eight other anti-abortion protesters of having conspired to block access to reproductive-health services by creating a blockade — with chains, ropes, and their bodies — back in October 2020 at the Washington Surgi-Clinic, which is also where Handy says she got the fetuses last month.

Handy is among a minority of militant activists who actually practice what the mainstream anti-abortion movement preaches. When former president Donald Trump likens an abortion to “a baby [being] ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” or when Fox News host Tucker Carlson says, “Planned Parenthood kills people,” activists like Handy have taken that idea literally. Even before a draft Supreme Court opinion leaked to Politico suggested the justices plan to overturn the right to an abortion, Handy was willing to risk prison time to block patients from accessing the procedure. “Personally, I believe we can shut down abortion facilities without the Supreme Court through sustained and mass mobilization, protests, and people power,” Handy said four weeks before the leak. “So regardless of what happens with Roe v. Wade, I believe we can dismantle the abortion industry.”

The sidewalk in front of the sole Planned Parenthood clinic in D.C., the Carol Whitehill Moses Center, is Handy’s part-time office. She’s there three to four times a week, telling everyone from patients to food-delivery drivers that “there’s free help for you and your family” and “they kill babies in there.” Some people listen and take her pamphlets; some people get angry; many ignore her. Laura Meyers, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., describes Handy as “a constant presence outside our D.C. health center.” “She and other anti-abortion activists regularly bully, intimidate, and menace our patients and staff, block access to our health center, and verbally assault people simply trying to access health care while hurling misinformation, lies, and invective,” Meyers wrote in an emailed statement. Handy estimates that she has gained entry to at least 100 abortion clinics since 2013, either to counsel patients inside or to surreptitiously drop off anti-abortion literature.

And as abortion becomes increasingly restricted across the U.S., she is passing her militant tactics on to a new generation of activists with a group called Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, emboldening protesters to sow chaos where the procedure remains legal. “The message that we’re spreading is that you can dismantle the abortion industry on a community level and in blue strongholds,” Handy says.

Handy’s journey to trespassing at abortion clinics and dumpster-diving for fetuses began with a chance invitation. Back in 2013, she was attending community college and planning to transfer to a state university with a strong art-history program. Inspired by her painter father, she thought she’d become an art historian and maybe work in a museum. But Handy was studying in Lynchburg, Virginia, down the road from one of the largest Evangelical colleges in the world: Liberty University. One day, a Liberty student invited Handy, who grew up southern Baptist, to stand outside a Planned Parenthood clinic and try to convince women not to get abortions.

She was further radicalized that year when she heard a recording published by the group Live Action, which has made its name goading abortion providers into making comments that rile up the anti-abortion movement and secretly taping them. In the recording, Dr. Cesare Santangelo, an OB/GYN at the Washington Surgi-Clinic, told a woman posing as a patient that in a hypothetical situation in which a fetus survived an abortion, he “would not help it” (he later told the Washington Post that he would call 911). That was enough to make Handy drop her museum dreams and dedicate her life to disrupting clinics. “There was a pivotal moment where I had to decide if I was going to continue with college or be full time,” Handy says, referring to her anti-abortion activism. “It was during final exams, and I took a train to D.C. — purposely failed all my exams to go to the press conference out in front of Santangelo’s [clinic].”

Handy eventually dropped out of Central Virginia Community College and traveled to Riverside, California, to train with Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, an organization that teaches high-school and college students that legalized abortion in the U.S. is state-sponsored genocide. The group’s co-founder Jeff White was known for leading aggressive clinic blockades in the 1980s and ’90s as one of the directors of the activist group Operation Rescue. After a string of murders targeting clinics and abortion providers spurred Congress to pass the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) in 1994, tamping down this aggressive form of direct action, White pivoted to hosting summer boot camps for young abortion opponents.

The campers would sleep in the homes of former clinic-blockaders, whom Handy says turned her on to the concept of infiltrating clinics and disrupting their operations. She watched VHS tapes of their blockades and listened to the older activists’ battle stories. A documentary Handy watched during camp featured Joan Andrews Bell, who had served prison time after tampering with medical equipment at abortion clinics in the ’80s. Eventually, Andrews Bell, who is one of the other activists indicted after blockading the Washington Surgi-Clinic, would become Handy’s mentor.

At first, Handy started small, entering a clinic under the guise of asking for birth control while another activist left anti-abortion literature in between magazines and in the bathrooms. Then, in 2017, Handy teamed up with a group of older anti-abortion protesters, including Andrews Bell. The group tried to revive the “rescue” tactics of the ’80s and ’90s, meant to disrupt clinic operations, but this time taking a softer approach, which they dubbed “Red Rose Rescue.” Rather than physically blocking clinic doors, activists enter clinics with red roses to leave for patients. They often refuse to leave and resist arrest by making their bodies go limp. This is a delay tactic, explains Handy, forcing police to lift the protesters onto wheelchairs or stretchers to remove them.

Handy later joined Bukovinac, a self-described pro-choice Christian turned pro-life atheist who founded Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising in the fall of 2021, to create a secular, leftist, LGBTQ-inclusive offshoot of Red Rose Rescue. But she remains close with her mentors there, including Monica Migliorino Miller of the Michigan-based Citizens for a Pro-Life Society. “Probably within five minutes of opening up that box” of fetuses, the 69-year-old activist and theologian tells me, “Lauren and Terrisa contacted me, mostly because I have more experience than anybody else, in maybe the world, in the finding of the bodies of aborted babies.” In 1988, Migliorino Miller and a group of activists spent ten months retrieving fetuses that they believed had been aborted from an Illinois pathology lab, then sending them to activists to bury in grave sites all over America. Migliorino Miller famously photographed and published graphic images of these fetuses online and in her 2012 book, Abandoned: The Untold Story of the Abortion Wars.

Handy says she called Migliorino Miller on March 25 as soon as she discovered there were large fetuses among the 115 that she found in the box. Handy and Bukovinac, who don’t have medical backgrounds and believe that all abortion providers are murderers, began speculating that some of the fetuses were born alive. Soon, they were on the phone with different leaders in the movement seeking advice. “We were consulting priests, we were consulting lawyers, we were consulting people who’ve done this in the past,” Handy says. “Because we had no idea what we were doing.” Father Bill Kuchinsky told the Catholic News Agency that he drove up from West Virginia to perform a funeral Mass in front of Handy’s refrigerator door. After the Mass, Handy says she and another activist drove the 110 smaller fetuses to West Virginia for Kuchinsky to bury in a private cemetery. Five others remained in her refrigerator.

Bukovinac says she coordinated with a California lawyer who sent a letter to the D.C. medical examiner’s office and police speculating that those fetuses “were a result of late-term abortion(s) or possibly live birth abortions.” Bukovinac claims she worked with police to arrange the pickup of the five fetuses the next day. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police Department would only confirm that police responded to a tip on March 30 regarding potential biohazard material and that medical specimens were collected by the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (the medical examiner’s office did not respond to a request for comment). The spokesperson said in an emailed statement that “this is currently an ongoing investigation”; early on, police told reporters the fetuses appeared to have been “aborted in accordance with D.C. law” and that they were investigating how the fetuses got into Handy’s apartment.

The Reverend Rob Schenck, who once blockaded clinics alongside White, finds anti-abortion activists’ speculation about these fetuses both disturbing and familiar. He had taken fetal remains from pathology labs in the 1990s without investigating their origins and once participated in a stunt that involved showing then-Governor Bill Clinton a fetus while he was out for a jog. “I know now that we used fetal remains that were the result not of elective abortion but of fetal death in the womb or of spontaneous miscarriage. But we weren’t interested in fact-checking because that didn’t help the movement,” he says. Over the past few years, the Evangelical minister has experienced a conversion of faith and now supports the right to an abortion.

Schenck says he understands Handy’s desire to “grotesquely inform” people about what the result of an abortion looks like, assuming the fetuses she found were aborted. “But it’s very dehumanizing and objectifying to use fetal remains in that way,” he says. “Because what it says is that the shock value of it is the most important element to it.”

Handy insists she was not trying to score political points. “My agenda, if you want to call it that,” she tells me, “has always been burial and a funeral.”

The anti-abortion activists who have trained and worked with Handy describe her as nonconformist. A natural blonde, Handy has been dyeing her hair various shades of the rainbow since she was 12. She identifies as queer and uses both “she” and “they” pronouns. In her early 20s, she converted to Catholicism. “So I’m celibate” — she pauses before letting out a hysterical laugh — “to the best of my ability.”

She doesn’t take a salary from the nonprofits she works for. Instead, she subsists on financial help from family members and friends, occasionally pulling from her art background to do graphic-design side jobs for extra cash. Handy acknowledges this lifestyle is partially inspired by Catholic figures such as Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day, but it’s also strategic. “I purposely live below the poverty line so I’m judgment proof from lawsuits,” she says. “Nobody can garnish my wages, because I don’t make wages. I don’t even have a driver’s license.”

Handy also documents the most intimate details of her personal life and activism online. She has tweeted and spoken about her struggles with mental health — “I was molested as a child, abused as a child by non–family members,” she says by way of explanation — as well as the suicidal ideation she associates with her work, specifically finding fetuses in dumpsters and working in a hospice in Haiti. “I think she is emotionally very sensitive,” Migliorino Miller says of Handy.

Just not to abortion-rights activists and clinic staff. “She’s dangerous, and I think her exterior, her presentation, belies how dangerous she truly is,” says duVergne Gaines, the director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project, which advocates for safety at reproductive-health clinics. Gaines describes Handy as being at the center of “a concerted national campaign to terrorize reproductive-health-care providers by conducting repeated clinic invasions that disrupt and delay, interfere with, and obstruct the delivery and provision of reproductive-health-care providers and traumatize the patient staff and those accompanying them in these settings.”

Handy and several of the other indicted activists already had trespass cases pending in various states that mostly resulted in fines or short stints in jail. Handy says the longest time she served was four days in a Flint, Michigan, jail in 2019, after which she did not enter any abortion clinics in the U.S. for a year. By the fall of 2020, Handy was ready to get back inside an abortion clinic — and not just to drop off flowers. “There’s never been a time where people really wanted to do traditional rescues, because of FACE,” she says. But this time, she and the other protesters were willing to take the risk.

The choice to “lock and block” — the tactic of linking arms to block a clinic’s entrance — at Washington Surgi-Clinic was partially strategic. The clinic is part of an office park. “If you’re in a medical-complex building, the landlord has to declare you an official trespasser,” Handy says, explaining that the goal is to delay police from removing them from the building. Plus, the clinic’s Dr. Santangelo had long existed in Handy’s mind as a supervillain. WUSA9 recently reviewed five years of D.C. Department of Health inspection reports and found that “inspectors have consistently found nothing to cite” at Washington Surgi-Clinic, which declined to comment for this story. But finding fetuses outside was all the evidence Handy needed to publicly accuse a doctor of infanticide.

In front of the D.C. Planned Parenthood on a recent Wednesday, Handy and Bukovinac stop a Papa Johns delivery driver as he carries pizzas toward the clinic doors. “They kill babies in there,” Handy tells him. “What do you mean ‘they kill babies’?” asks the driver. “They give pizza to the babies?” Bukovinac echoes Handy, telling the driver not to deliver the pizzas. When that doesn’t work, she says, “Ask them. Ask them if they kill babies.”

I stop the driver as he heads back to his car, empty delivery bag in hand. He tells me that he asked someone inside the clinic if they were killing babies, to which he says the person responded, “Don’t worry about it.” He asks me what the activists are talking about, and I explain it’s a health clinic that offers abortions. “Ah,” he says.

Later, I ask Handy how she ensures that the people who join her on clinic rescues won’t act violently. “It’s clearly stated beforehand,” Handy says. “Nobody’s wanting to commit violence. We want to interrupt the cycle of violence. And we can’t do that through mirroring the injustice or the use of violence. And we’re all like-minded in those principles.”

Activists willing to commit violence to stop abortions have always existed among those who demonstrate peacefully, however. Seeing old-school blockades come back makes Schenck worry about a potential resurgence in shootings at abortion clinics, like when Robert Lewis Dear Jr., influenced by an anti-abortion campaign that accused providers of selling fetal remains for profit, killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015.

“There’s kind of a natural progression. You violate space and scare and disrupt people, so that sort of desensitizes you to those boundaries you know,” explains Schenck, who believes the anti-abortion leaders he worked with would never behave violently. “What concerns me is the fringe around them — people on the periphery who interpret their words and actions as a kind of unspoken permission to intervene violently, as past shooters did.”

When local news channels broadcast images of red biohazard bags being carried out of Handy’s apartment, the Reverend Pat Mahoney, a D.C.-area anti-abortion leader, received a half-dozen calls and texts from other movement figures who were confused or alarmed by what they were seeing.

“I was getting texts from pro-life leaders like, ‘Do you know this person? Is this person crazy?’” he tells me. Mahoney has known Handy for about a decade, having worked with her on  abortion-related causes and on efforts to help the homeless in D.C. “Lauren is very sensitive and committed to the people who many would consider underdogs or, perhaps, in the shadows,” he says. “I suppose some in the movement who have more mainstream American, kind of white-picket-fence lives might look at Lauren as a unique person, might look at her through a different lens.”

But national anti-abortion groups including Live Action and the Susan B. Anthony List, as well as several Republican members of Congress, are piggybacking on Handy’s baseless claims of infanticide at the Washington Surgi-Clinic and demanding that the fetuses she found be autopsied. During a recent press conference outside the clinic, activists from Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising entered the building and handed an office worker a leaflet advertising a $25,000 reward for any staff member willing to testify against Santangelo. The group continues to pressure the District and the federal government to investigate whether the fetuses were aborted illegally.

Handy now faces the possibility of spending 11 years in prison if convicted for the clinic blockade. Meanwhile, anti-abortion legislation anticipating the end of Roe has begun opening the door to prosecuting women for terminating their pregnancies if the Supreme Court overturns the decision. “I don’t think people should be criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes,” says Handy, who opposes the part of Texas’s six-week abortion ban that deputizes residents to sue anyone who “aids or abets” the abortion (Oklahoma recently passed a similar law). “I still don’t have all the answers,” she admits. “I guess my focus would be more on transformative-justice policies, addressing the conditions of why people choose violence,” including low wages and systemic racism.

In a way, she has been preparing for a decade for the moment when she’d have to give up her freedom for the anti-abortion movement. “I feel like the die has been cast for me,” Handy says. “I’ve accepted the reality that my life will be in and out of jail.” If she weren’t risking time behind bars to stop abortions, she tells me it would be for chaining housing-court doors shut ahead of eviction hearings. “I’ve purposefully structured my life to be able to absorb those consequences, and so it will manifest however it manifests.”

Why Were There Fetuses in Her Refrigerator?