Metro Atlanta physicians who participated in the General Assembly's debate on new abortion restrictions say they warned lawmakers that they were being targeted for reprisals. And they are skittish about returning to the state Capitol next year when the topic is all but certain to come up again.
Lawmakers, too, say they're worried.
Two burglaries and two fires at Atlanta-area women's clinics and a burglary at the the main office of the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society are being investigated by the FBI as possible acts of domestic terrorism or civil rights violations.
Four of the five offices targeted are run by doctors who had voiced concerns — sometimes publicly, sometimes privately — about the so-called fetal pain bill, which shortened to 20 weeks the time frame during which women can have an elective abortion.
"These are despicable acts and if there is some relationship between these acts and the legislation, then it's even more outrageous," said House Speaker David Ralston. "I'm concerned that Georgians might have some fear of coming to the Capitol and voicing their opinions on legislation. Obviously, that troubles me."
Four physicians interviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some of whom declined to be named, said they suspected — but could not prove — that whoever targeted their clinics was exceptionally well informed about their activities in the Capitol during the 40 days of the session. Even those activities that occurred out of the public eye.
"The circle of people is not that large," said John Walraven, a lobbyist for the Infertility and Perinatology Consortium of Georgia. "That's what's creepy about it."
HB 954, which was ultimately signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal, is the most substantial abortion restriction to pass the General Assembly in several years, and was designed to provide a new constitutional basis — the pain experienced by fetuses during the procedure —for further restrictions.
The bill's passage was a milestone victory for abortion foes. The restriction's most visible backers, Georgia Right to Life, has condemned the arsons and burglaries as "abhorrent." The group's spokesman said the group is cooperating with the FBI investigation.
"We are an organization that has never not worked with the FBI against domestic terrorism," Georgia Right To Life President Dan Becker said Thursday. "We have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of acts of violence against abortionists, or anybody related — patients or doctors."
Doctors who headed to the Capitol to testify said they do not perform abortions, but they were greatly concerned with the impact the bill would have on women with troubled pregnancies. The doctors said some conditions fatal to a fetus cannot even be diagnosed until after 20 weeks.
Odd series of events
Dr. Richard Zane of Atlanta Women's Health Group in Sandy Springs said that on Feb. 16, he sat silently in the audience at the first House hearing of HB 954. He then went to the offices of state Rep. Doug McKillip, R-Athens, the bill's sponsor, with two other doctors to express his concerns.
After the meeting, he said, he left the Capitol and spoke to no one else.
Two weeks later, a burglar smashed a window at Zane's clinic and took several tablet computers.
Zane said he had no reason to accuse McKillip, but wondered who the lawmaker had talked to.
McKillip said no leak occurred through him. The lawmaker said he never spoke to anybody else about Zane's visit, which all parties described as friendly.
"I can't state this strongly enough: I am a law-and-order guy. This is not something we can have in a civilized society," McKillip said.
Dr. Jeffrey Korotkin says anti-abortion activists are behind a campaign of intimidation. Korotkin was set to testify at the same public hearing that Zane attended.
Korotkin, who specializes in treating women with high-risk pregnancies, changed his mind about returning to the Capitol this year after his office received a deluge of threatening phone calls in the days leading up to the hearing. The calls stopped, he said, after he decided against testifying.
"I cannot believe anyone other than them [anti-abortion activists] has targeted the offices of people who did come down there, and targeted our [Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological] Society's main office," Korotkin said. "Who else would do it, and why?"
The burglary at the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society occurred the weekend before a Senate committee was to discuss amending the bill to continue to keep private the names of physicians who have to report abortions to the state. The society's executive director, Pat Cota, had lobbied openly at the Capitol for the physicians' privacy to remain protected.
The intruders bypassed three laptop computers, but stole two laptops in the executive director's office that stored the names and addresses of doctors.
"We have folks we believe may be trying to intimidate us," said Cota. "My doctors are concerned, given what has been happening."
The one exception to the apparent pattern is Dr. Daniel McBrayer of the Alpha Group GYN clinic in Marietta, whose facility was the site of an arson on May 23. Physicians who lobbied for changes in the bill said McBrayer never visited the Capitol to engage in the debate. However, his clinic is a well-known abortion provider and is often picketed by anti-abortion protesters. McBrayer did not return calls seeking comment.
Feds reveal little
The FBI is working with local authorities to determine if whoever started the fire at Alpha Group GYN on May 23 was responsible for a suspected arson on May 20 at Atlanta Gynecology and Obstetrics in Lilburn. They are also looking at whether the fires are linked to the break-ins at Zane's office in Sandy Springs, the Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society in unincorporated Suwanee, and at the same Lilburn clinic that was later torched. The intruders snatched only computer equipment.
The FBI has released a sketch of a potential witness to the May 23 arson who was seen talking on a cellphone in the area. Since then, the feds have remained tight-lipped about the investigation. "There is no feedback or updates to provide at this time," FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett said.
When asked if they are investigating a potential tie-in with the General Assembly and the fetal pain debate, Emmett said, "We are aware of that aspect, but I can't get into that."
Zane said this week that he had not been contacted by the FBI. Neither had McKillip.
Speaker Ralston said he wasn't sure what could be done, but he said he was willing to consider asking House committee chairmen and their staff to keep lists of hearing witnesses more closely guarded.
"I'm open to looking at that. Certainly the safety of people who testify is of paramount importance," Ralston said. "I want Georgians, regardless of their point of view, to have the ability to be heard."
The FBI is investigating whether a string of burglaries and arsons at Atlanta-area women's clinics are acts of domestic terrorism. Four of the five incidents were at clinics where doctors worked who expressed concerns to state lawmakers about new abortion restrictions. Below are the incidents.
- Jan. 26, Lilburn, The Atlanta Gynecology and Obstetrics Gwinnett office is burglarized. Several laptops are stolen.
- March 4, Sandy Springs, Atlanta Women's Health Group office is burglarized. A desktop computer is stolen.
- March 17, Suwanee, The Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, which represents doctors who specialize in women's health, is burglarized. Several laptops are stolen.
- May 20, Lilburn, The Atlanta Gynecology and Obstetrics Gwinnett office is the target of arson.
- May 23, Marietta, A fire that has been ruled arson is set during business hours at abortion provider Alpha Group GYN.
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