During the month of May, according to FBI reports, three women’s clinics in the South were set on fire by suspected arsons, putting women’s clinics on heighten alert. The FBI and ATF are conducting a joint investigation of increased intimidation and threats against women’s health care. Burglaries happened at two other clinics in Georgia during the month of March.
The first two alleged arson attacks were in Georgia and the third was in New Orleans. It is not clear if the first two fires in Georgia are related, but both the National Abortion Federation and the FBI are concerned of escalating violence against women’s health clinics, especially in light of recent laws passed concerning abortion, even though most of the clinics do not perform abortions.
"We are concerned about the escalation and activity,” said Vicki Saporta, president of National Abortion Federation, which sent out notifications to all member clinics about theAtlantaincidents twice this week, urging them to take additional precautions. "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."
When asked whether authorities were worried about the fires escalating into violence, FBI Special Agent Stephen Emmett said “Yes, the fact that we have initiated a federal investigation into the matter speaks to that concern.”
Each of the four clinics in Georgia are sending a two person security team to assist the FBI with their investigation. Doctors, at each of the four clinics helping in the investigation, went to the State capital to voice their concerns about the restrictive abortion laws passed this month.
In one of the burglaries, thieves stole a desktop computer from the clinic. In one of the alleged arson attacks, pictures and important documents were burned, in which one of the doctors spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity due to safety concerns. As he spoke, he broke down in tears over charred pictures of babies he delivered.
“The charred baby pictures on the wall just broke my heart," the doctor said of the snapshots the office displayed of babies it delivered. “I don’t understand the connection, but it’s hard to ignore the chain of events. I think we all need to be careful until this person is caught."
While the investigation into the cases is in early stages, authorities are asking people with information to come forward.
Clinics in the area posted increase security guards and police patrol around the clinics in both marked and unmarked cars.
Two news videos on site.
In New Orleans, an alleged burglary and arson attack happened to a clinic called Women With a Vision (WWAV), a non-profit organization, which educates and assists marginalized women, their families, and their communities. The group is a health care organization that educates women of colour about HIV/AIDS and other health concerns of women.
Recently, the organization made national news, in part because they fought a Louisiana law, which forces sex workers to register as sex offenders and won. The charge for sex workers, when taken into police custody, is a misdemeanor again. The organization also works with transgendered women of colour, some of whom were affected by both the previous and present laws concerning prostitution.
Directly targeted in the arson attack were critical information, files, and materials needed for WWAV’s work.
According to an email report from Bill Quigley, a social justice attorney and friend of the organization, “Major fire damage was done to a room which contained education and outreach materials. The arsonist seemed to have deliberately targeted this room. Destroyed were: three plastic and silicone breast models which were used to help people learn how to do self-examinations for breast cancer; a plastic pelvic model of a vagina; a two feet by one and a half foot plastic model of a woman’s reproductive system; boxes of male and female condoms; flip charts demonstrating the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV; several wooden penises which were used for condom demonstration; and boxes of educational materials. The fires in that room seem to have been set with some accelerant and scorched the walls, ceiling fan and ceiling and destroyed everything in the room….The offices were ransacked leaving drawers pulled out and papers and files on the floor. A TV and a laptop were taken but many valuables were left including computer monitors, office equipment, even some beer left over from a reception held earlier in the week. Several small fires were started inside the offices, in the bathroom, the hallway and in a sitting room.”
Police and Fire Department stated the burglary and fire are still under investigation and even trying to determine if what happened was a hate crime.
Concerning the incident, Deon Hayward said, “I feel a great sense of pain and hurt. I feel violated.”
But the most troubling thing to Haywood is the loss of a space where women could feel safe and where they could go to take a bath or get something to eat. The Mid-City office is often the first stop for women just released from Orleans Parish Prison, she said.
"Our clients are not just numbers," she said. "They are family. We take care of one another."
"I feel strongly the fire had to do with our work or my voice, one or the other," Haywood said.
She said she is "not going to stop speaking out about injustice." She plans to find a new location and replace the destroyed supplies. "We'll keep moving," she said.