Love lived out in truth is not easy and rarely pretty. It can mean spending more than two years in prison for peaceful protests against abortion or taking midnight calls from battered pregnant women seeking a place to stay. It requires choosing conscience over convenience, even if your loved ones suffer as a result, and acting on the conviction that one immortal human soul is of greater value than the entire material universe.
Such love has been the motivation for Chris and Joan Andrews Bell. Over the past 40 years, before and after marriage, they have sought to live out this simple conviction: Abortion is the taking of an innocent human life that hurts both mother and child, and we are obliged to do our best to stop the killing and help the victims. The Bells have done their share and more on the front lines of the pro-life movement.
Chris Bell, president and co-founder of Good Counsel Homes, which has five live-in facilities in the New York tri-state area for pregnant women in crisis, has spent more than half his life fulfilling his mission of providing shelter and loving care for women and their babies. Committed to helping any pregnant woman regardless of her condition, including drug use and mental health issues, he has taken calls on the Good Counsel hotline from women who asked to be picked up on a dark roadside and taken to safety.
Joan Andrews Bell is also a pro-life pioneer. An early participant in Operation Rescue, she was arrested more than 100 times over the course of two decades and spent more than two years in prison for blocking the entrances of abortion clinics or entering clinics to disable the plugs of suction machines. The legitimate subject of pro-life lore, she has been the occasion of two books: You Reject Them, You Reject Me: The Prison Letters of Joan Andrews, a compilation of writings during her 31 months in a Pensacola prison, and I Will Never Forget You: The Rescue Movement in the Life of Joan Andrews, which carries a Foreword by fellow legend Joseph Scheidler.
Their stature within the movement notwithstanding, the Bells are “a family like any family, with problems and struggles and weaknesses,” Chris says. “I hope no one will look at us and think that we’re the perfect parents or the perfect family, because it’s not the case.”
Perfect or not, the very composition of their family shows an admirable commitment to life. Married in 1991, after knowing each other for years through pro-life activities, Chris and Joan have one child born of their union and six adopted children who are now adults. Their first adopted child, Emiliano, was born in Mexico with multiple disabilities. Five other children have special needs, and one was adopted from a mother who changed her mind about abortion after hearing that there was a loving couple waiting to adopt.
Talking with the Bells about pro-life issues or simply spending time with them in their New Jersey home reinforces one’s awareness that life is a precious gift from God, filled with opportunities to choose and act—at this very moment— for the good. A call may come on the pregnancy hotline and off Chris will go, or Joan may suddenly grab her rosary beads to attend a pro-life rally. Amid the flow of their married and family life, there is always the sense that more should be done to counter the culture of death in whatever form it confronts them.
Living on the front lines in this way may sound like a heavy burden for any couple to bear, but their reliance on God and their deep Catholic faith allow Chris and Joan to go forth as happy warriors to a battle that they know has already been won by Jesus and his Blessed Mother. They pray throughout the day, especially before and after every important decision, and leave the outcome in the hands of God. Such faith also allows them to accept their weaknesses and suffering, laugh at their foibles, and endure the inevitable shocks and setbacks of life. When a daughter became pregnant out of wedlock, they were disappointed yet received the child as a gift from God and made sure that their daughter and granddaughter would experience the depth of their love and acceptance. Joan now spends most of her days in upstate New York, helping her daughter care for the child.
Chris often quotes a favorite saying of his mentor and friend, Father Benedict Groeschel, the Franciscan Friar of the Renewal who was co-founder with Bell of Good Counsel Homes in 1985. “Want to make God laugh?” Chris says, clearly remembering the well-known priest who passed away in 2014. “Tell him your plans!” A prolific spiritual author and longtime EWTN host, Father Groeschel also would remind people that following God’s will does not always lead to peace and prosperity in this life. Often it leads to hardship and persecution, as the Bells can attest.
One of the most challenging choices they ever made—one that apparently pitted their pro-life convictions against their family values—took place over 20 years ago, when Joan was still subject to parole conditions for her Operation Rescue arrests. After the birth of their baby when Joan was 44, the couple decided to adopt a handicapped child. During a visit to an orphanage in Mexico, they fell in love with Emiliano, then an 8-year-old boy with a number of disabilities. They arranged to take custody of him while going through the international adoption process, fully aware that the routine background check might uncover an outstanding warrant. Sure enough, one morning in September 1997, New Jersey police arrested Joan at home and a date was set for her to appear before a Pennsylvania judge.
The case had originated with her arrest at a Pittsburgh abortion clinic in 1985; she could not report for sentencing a few months later because she was in jail for a rescue in Pensacola. That five-year sentence gained national headlines when Joan was placed in solitary confinement for refusing to promise to stop rescuing and failing to cooperate in any way with the prison schedule. She even declined a mattress for her cot and slept on the concrete floor. The only person she was allowed to see was a priest, who brought her Holy Communion and heard her confession. In 1988, her sentence was commuted by Florida’s governor, and Joan then appeared before Pittsburgh Judge Raymond Novak, whose sentence of three years’ probation took effect in 1990 after Joan had exhausted her appeals. When the conviction was confirmed, Judge Novak issued a warrant for her to register, but Joan refused to comply with the terms of probation. The case lay dormant until the warrant came up in the adoption process and law enforcement took action. After her arrest at home, a New Jersey judge ordered her to report to Judge Novak, which she did to receive a court date.
At this time, some fellow prolifers appealed to Joan to follow the judge’s instructions and promise not to rescue again. After all, she had children to care for and had suffered enough for the cause. But Joan remained steadfast. It was a matter of conscience and public witness, she said, citing the teaching of Pope John Paul II, who wrote in Evangelium Vitae that unjust laws should be resisted peacefully. She would not comply with any order that would imply she was wrong to trespass to save babies, she said, and God would provide for her family as long as she was faithful to his commandments.
Finally, on Jan. 15, 1998, Joan once again stood in Judge Novak’s court as he held the letter she wrote eloquently explaining the basis of her civil disobedience. Her lawyer noted that they were convening on the birthday of another one-time prisoner of conscience, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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.”
Calling her a woman “of deep conviction and sincere belief,” Judge Novak, a former Catholic priest, said that his hands were tied as he sentenced her to 3 to 23 months in jail. “My obligation is not to decide the abortion issue, which has torn our country apart,” he said. “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.” At the sound of the gavel, Joan collapsed to the floor, as part of her noncompliance, and was carried from the courtroom by four officers.
In a statement, her husband called her a political prisoner. “It’s a political issue she’s being sentenced on. They are trying to gain compliance to a particular view against her conscience,” Chris said.
In a surprise move, Joan was released after 10 weeks when prison officials apparently petitioned the judge for an early release. The next day, true to her convictions, Joan was in court again with her lawyer, this time to testify in behalf of a pregnant inmate who was seeking a medical furlough to enter a hospital until delivery. While serving time, she was serving others, befriending fellow inmates and convincing one against going through with an abortion. “If for no other reason,” she said, “being in jail was worth it just to save that one baby.”
Although Joan mostly has kept a lower profile in recent years, while bringing up seven children, since 2017 she has been participating in the new Red Rose Rescues, in which prolifers peacefully enter abortion clinics and hand out roses to the women in the waiting room, risking arrest for trespassing.
Joan still has a dream of forming a community of laypeople who devote themselves totally to protecting life. One group in the community would go out to pray and counsel at abortion clinics, and another would be a rescue group that would divest themselves of all property so they could risk arrest and jail time for blocking clinic entrances. “I know everyone cannot rescue,” she says, “but we can all pray in front of the killing centers.”
Although his daily work does not often grab headlines, Chris Bell is as committed as his wife to ending abortion and healing the wounds that come with it. In addition to overseeing the five Good Counsel Homes, he spearheaded the formation of a national coalition of pro-life maternity homes. They share best practices, referrals, and other information. The move is part of Chris’s firm belief that pro-life groups need to work more closely together to be more effective and save more lives. At the very least, he says, one pro-life organization should not criticize the methods or success of another.
“After decades of hard work, we still have not stopped abortion in this country,” he says. “The killing goes on as we speak. One reason, I think, is that we are not united, we are too critical of one another, and are quick to point out flaws in the other. I take the classical view of working together: In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
He also laments that the pro-life movement began in the 70s with a division on the issue of contraception. Many, including Catholic priests, advised against mentioning contraception as a root cause of abortion in order not to alienate Protestants and those in government who would work against abortion but not contraception. Whatever wisdom there was in the tactic initially, Chris says, it is clear now that the prolifers need to speak up against contraception and its tragic connection to abortion.
Chris warns that the movement must not become overly reliant on political power, even with an administration that is friendly to life. Success ultimately will come through grassroots work and witness, which means more people must be motivated to get involved in protecting life.
“No matter the administration or the politics, when innocent life is threatened, we need to be active on the front lines, participating in the effort to save lives and help women, whether that’s rescue or praying at the killing centers or praying at home or counseling someone in our family or office or neighborhood against abortion.”
Chris describes the front-line work he has been doing for 35 years in this way: “Good Counsel is a family for abandoned single mothers before, during and after the birth of their baby. We help a mom take the next good step educationally, put her on a vocational track, and move her toward self-sufficiency. Over the years, Good Counsel has taken in more than 7,000 mothers and babies in our homes, offering nearly 800,000 nights of shelter and days of loving support. We’ve seen about 1,202 babies born to our moms. Good Counsel has helped expand the services a maternity home could offer, taking in women who are pregnant and have other children; women who recently gave birth; older women; teens fleeing from abortion-demanding parents; those with drug and emotional problems. We encourage all pro-life maternity homes to expand their services in this way, but we still are one of the few.”
Regarding the adoption of disabled or high-needs children, Chris explained,
“My wife and I discussed the possibility of adoption before we were married. We were an older couple and certainly there was no guarantee that we could have children. In fact, every couple of any age should discuss adoption because children are not a given just because one is young and appears healthy. We discussed that we were open to adoption and we’d specifically consider special needs children, although we didn’t have a specific description in mind. We also spread the word to any prolifer we spoke with that they should tell the women going into the doors of an abortion clinic that we would adopt their baby. We need to see the face of Jesus in every child, in every adult, in every person we meet. Each of us is a gift of God to the other.”
His view is summed up well in a recent fundraising email that has the ring of authenticity if you know that the couple behind the organization live as they speak.
Every Child is a Christmas Miracle
Kathy [not her real name] was afraid. Terrified. Eight months pregnant, alone, nowhere to turn. A kind stranger told her about a place that could help her.
Your love welcomed Kathy when she arrived at Good Counsel. Here she found a warm, comfortable bed, meals, and everything she would need for her baby. As she settled in, Kathy’s fears gave way . . . to hope.
Each time I tell Kathy’s story, I think about how worried the Virgin Mary must have been when the angel told her she would bear a Son. “How can this be?” she asked. The angel’s answer was reassuring: “Nothing will be impossible for God” (Luke 1:34-38).
That is a fitting description for the life and work of Chris and Joan Bell. Amid the hardships and obstacles that have come their way, they have clung to one truth: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
The Good Counsel Homes 24-hour pregnancy hotline is 1-800-723-8331.
Some of the quotes in this article are taken from the author’s coverage of the Bells for Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, and other outlets.