In a development some pro-lifers are hailing as a miraculous event, longtime American activist Joan Andrews Bell has left prison, in spite of a sentence of up to 23 months levied against her in January.

Bell, 49, walked out of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Jail March 26. She had been sentenced by Judge Raymond Novak for failing to comply with the terms of a probation order relating to a 1985 conviction on charges of invading the Women’s Health Services Clinic in downtown Pittsburgh.

“Joan has directly saved at least one baby from abortion in jail,” her husband Chris said after her release. “She helped many women in prison, many of whom were pregnant.”

On her release, Bell was debating hopping a bus back to New Jersey or staying in Pittsburgh to assist a pregnant inmate who was due to appear in court shortly. Although Bell still refused to sign anything, her husband said she was being bound by the terms of a new probation order.

In the 1985 incident, police had to break the lock to an examination room after Bell and another protester barricaded themselves inside the clinic. Bell, a resident of Jersey City, N.J., spent two months in prison before being released on bond, then missed a sentencing hearing because she was in a Florida jail as a result of similar offences.

After her sentence was commuted in Florida, she was given a jail term of time served plus three years’ probation on her return to Pennsylvania. Bell was defiant even at the sentencing hearing, and had to be carried out of the courtroom by four sheriff’s officers.

Helen Cindrich, executive director of the Pittsburgh pro-life group People Concerned for the Unborn Child, hailed the newly freed Bell as a role model for the pro-life movement. “She was probably doing good even when she was in jail because she made us all try a little harder.”

Cindrich added Bell made a great sacrifice in leaving her family to spend time in jail for her beliefs. “What she was doing was spending a lot of time in prayer, but (also) helping women inmates be better mothers.”

Chris Bell said he would have preferred things to have worked out differently, but that he and Joan were sure they did the right thing for their family, who include a daughter and an adopted son.

“The greatest suffering for her, for me and the children, was the separation. But it’s very, very small compared to the suffering a woman goes through in having an abortion and (the suffering of) the baby who is aborted.”

Chris Bell said he had a premonition that his wife would be released after a priest urged him and others to intensify their prayers shortly before she was freed.