A series of break-ins and arson incidents have workers and patients at women's health clinics in Atlanta on "heightened alert," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The FBI and ATF are conducting a joint investigation of what appears to be a sharp escalation in a campaign to intimidate and threaten providers of women's health care, including abortion services.
In recent weeks, clinics specializing in women's health services have been the scene of three burglaries and now two fires. The first fire took place at a private OB/GYN office in the north Atlanta suburb of Gwinnett on Sunday, the second just Wednesday at the Alpha Group GYN offices, a large and bustling facility in Marietta.
Raw Story asked Jaime Chandra, Communications Manager for Atlanta's Feminist Women's Health Center, if she believes that the attacks are related to Georgia's recent passage of stringent new anti-abortion measures. "I don't think there's any doubt about that," she said, "I would love to believe that it's not related and that we live in a civil society, but, no, I don't think it's coincidental."
Chandra pointed out that all of the doctors targeted so far are part of a group of OB GYN physicians who spoke out against the state's controversial HB 954, a so-called "fetal pain" bill that placed tight new restrictions on late-term abortions and was passed into law on March 29. Under the new rules, physicians and other health care workers who provide abortion services outside the confines of the law are subject to criminal prosecution.
It was after the physicians' group had made their resistance to the law known that the first break-in occurred. On Sunday, March 4, the North Atlanta Women's Specialists' offices were burglarized by a thief who stole two laptop computers that contained employees' names and personal information. A second break-in took place on Saturday, March 17, when a suspect broke into the offices of The Georgia Obstetrical & Gynecological Society, again stealing laptop computers with staff members' personal information.
Dr. David Byck, president of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society told The Suwannee Patch, "The police officers said that the break-in looked well planned, and it's frightening that the personal and family information of our membership has been stolen. There cannot be a good intent behind such a crime."
The first fire took place at around 4:30 a.m. Sunday at the offices of Atlanta Gynecology and Obstetrics. A front window of the clinic was broken and police dogs indicated the presence of an "incendiary substance."
Witnesses to Wednesday's fire at Alpha Group GYN say that two men entered the building and went upstairs, then left just before the fire was discovered. The fire started on the offices' fourth floor, damaging records and equipment, but no one was hurt.
The FBI has released a security camera photo of a suspect from a bank near the clinic. He is described as a male between 5-feet-10-inches in height and 6-feet-one-inch. On Wednesday, he wore khaki pants and a blue polo shirt. He was driving a gray Mercury Marquis with tinted windows and what the police called "large, chrome wheels."
Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, told the Journal-Constitution that the crimes are alarming because of their rapid escalation. "It’s not a good sign when one arson follows another, after following several burglaries. Something clearly is escalating there and we’re hoping that the strong law enforcement so far can stop it." The National Abortion Federation and law enforcement agencies have issued warnings to staff and patients at women's health centers in and around Atlanta to exercise reasonable caution and to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
When asked if she fears for her safety, FWHC's Chandra said that she and her organization have been very impressed by the coordinated response by law enforcement, who are on the premises at all times, in both marked and unmarked cars. Threats, she said, aren't really something she concentrates on. They're just another part of doing business.
"We're not afraid," she said, "We're confident about the safety of our patients and staff. The most important thing is for us to serve the women who need our services and to treat them with dignity and respect."
Watch this report on the attacks, which aired Thursday, May 24, embedded below via Atlanta's Fox 5 News:
(Screen grab of arson suspect via Fox 5 News)