A tiny group banded together around a dining table in 1989, worried about friends who needed lawyers to represent them after arrests outside abortion clinics. As they put together a plan, they could not foresee that over the next 20 years they would be joined by scores of volunteer attorneys and thousands of donors who also believed in the defense of life from conception through natural death.
That group became Life Legal Defense Foundation, the one-of-a-kind non-profit known for taking individual cases that others will not touch, especially cases that combine free-speech rights with pro-life witness in public places. At the heart of LLDF are John and Mimi Streett, still active 20 years after they were asked by pro-life leaders to find legal help for the many “rescuers” needing legal guidance or courtroom representation.
Mimi has guided organization and helped find supporters, while John has served as president of the board of directors since the organization’s founding at their table.
In the beginning, Mrs. Streett remembers, San Francisco Bay Area attorney Dan Grimm was almost single-handedly preparing pro-life arrestees to go into court and represent themselves before judges who could release or jail them for trespassing. The “rescue” movement demonstrators blocked sidewalks and entryways to clinics in an effort to change the decisions of at least some pregnant women seeking abortion. For every woman who turned back, the life of one child was rescued.
Many people—most still active today in some facet of pro-life work—served jail time as they brought attention to the cause and tried to influence mothers to allow their unborn children to live. Operation Rescue West Coast was organizing demonstrations, but there was no plan for defending people after arrest. Thus Life Legal was created.
Ron Maxson, a pro-life leader, and Steve Lopez, an attorney acting on behalf of pro-lifers, appealed to Mimi and John for help. Mimi was a natural organizer, and John was an attorney in private practice—the perfect combination. With a core group of pro-life colleagues, the Streetts nurtured LLDF from a small, all-volunteer start to its current status as a respected force in the nation’s pro-life community.
Life Legal now has a small professional staff and an office in Napa. It raises funds year-round to support costs of representing clients whose cases cover all life issues—defenders of the unborn, the disabled, and the frail elderly who oppose efforts to hasten death, among others. Following the original model, attorneys volunteer to defend cases and court fees and case expenses are paid by LLDF. Costs have steadily risen, and fundraising has steadily continued.
Mimi grew up Catholic in a pro-life family and graduated from South San Francisco High School the year that Roe became law. “I included the Supreme Court decision in my valedictory speech and talked about what a horrific decision it was and how we needed to do something about it,” she recalls. Subsequent experiences with close friends whose health suffered after legal abortions—including one who almost bled to death and others who later struggled with infertility—reinforced her position, as did meeting a woman who had had four abortions and later was able to have children. That mother’s living children made real the finality of her previous decisions, “and she so regretted that. She became active in rescues and was really able to help other women.”
Meanwhile, John was making his way through college and law school, guided by the pro-life principles learned from his Catholic parents and convinced that “the unborn child was a child and that intentionally killing a child was wrong. The church’s position on abortion, which goes back to the first century, was a logical conclusion of an objective reality.”
When Roe was passed, he wondered how the court could have “created a right out of nothing.” Given the variety of political responses among states, he observes that “if not for the courts, the abortion movement would never, ever, have gotten close to this point.”
Mimi and John were introduced, both involved in pro-life work, by a mutual friend involved in both of the pro-life organizations in which Mimi and John were involved with at the time. Although originally active in rescues outside clinics, Mimi channeled her efforts into organizational work with LLDF while expecting her second child. Outside clinics, “there was some physical violence—one of my friends had her back injured when a pro-abortion protester purposely shoved and then sat on her. And many other rescuers and counselors in California were screamed at, followed, assaulted, and victimized by petty acts of vandalism. Does Mimi fear for safety today? “There is a real possibility for persecution, especially if the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) passes,” she says. “The government will know who we are.” But “we know we will win in the end, though I wonder if the kids growing up now will be tough enough to carry on. I hope so.”
As an attorney, John originally represented demonstrators arrested for trespass. As clinic tactics changed, so did the legal response. “I did a bit of criminal defense and got the best deals I could for clients.”
“That evolved into the need to defend people who were subject to preliminary injunctions. That gave way to a strategy employed by Planned Parenthood, primarily, to sue everybody they could. That discouraged people from being around clinics and from sidewalk counseling.”
The work of Life Legal has been “first and foremost to provide defense, but in the last 10 years there has also been an offense involved,” John says. “We can find lawyers to represent people who want to bring plaintiff suits against cities or school districts that have enacted restrictive bubble zones or have falsely arrested those who are legally present on public property.” Such efforts by plaintiffs across the nation are “important because communities do not live in a vacuum. If they see they can’t steamroll people, they will think twice.”
In a victory for the “culture of life,” Life Legal represented the mother of Robert Wendland. Robert was brain-damaged, but functional, yet his wife agreed with a hospital committee that he should not be fed. The case was won just as Robert died naturally, setting precedent for the care of disabled patients in California. This case was also important because in similar situations, “it is often hard to get a grip on the case because the patient can die so quickly that there is not time to mount a defense.”
In future, John predicts that LLDF will “keep doing what we are doing—responding to cases, including small cases, from abortion to end-of-life cases, in which somebody cares enough to ask for a lawyer.
“I also see us trying to do more education to let the legal community know more about end-of-life situations, which will become a bigger issue going forward.”
A huge potential challenge, John says, is that the new “pro-abortion administration” will allow abortion providers “to get more governmental funding allowing them to be more aggressive. That would make the struggle more difficult.” Also problematic is the possibility of new laws that may forbid doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others in health care from following their consciences and opting out of legal procedures such as abortion. “We anticipate this is going to happen, and the potential for litigation could be tremendous. Surely people are cognizant that professionals are not just going to roll over.”
For 20 years, John says, the Life Legal team has been “consistently available so that people have some reliable place to turn.” The credit goes to “God; to a tremendous administrator, Mary Riley; and to really qualified people,” among them Executive Director Dana Cody, legal strategist Katie Short, and the many volunteer attorneys who “are not getting rich but who have a heart for pro-life work.”
The work is far from done. One of the two men often given credit for persuading American leaders to legalize abortion is Bernard Nathanson, who now freely admits that he made up statistics to support his pro-abortion argument. He was a keynote speaker at the annual LLDF dinner in 1997. He performed thousands of legal abortions but later had a complete conversion and is now a pro-life activist. His early position, however, illustrates what John calls “one of the scary things about abortion, euthanasia and other life issues. Most of the bad things are the result of very bright people being able to make bad things palatable. Say a big lie long enough, and people begin to believe it.
“Life Legal’s job is to keep fighting, to tell the truth, and to let God do the rest.”