Last year, doctors in Georgia expressed concern that they were being targeted after they had testified at the capitol in opposition to the proposed 20-week ban on abortion in Georgia. The office break-ins at Atlanta clinics that occurred during periods of heated debate weren’t initially believed to be related to the bill heading through the legislature, and lawmakers dismissed their concerns as overly paranoid.
But now that those same doctors have seen the offenses escalate from break-ins to arson, more people are willing to take them seriously. Unfortunately, the violence has had its intended effect. Physicians are saying they are “skittish” about testifying for any other bills, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
It looks like they should be, too. Whomever is committing these crimes appears to have unusually detailed information on their activities, according to the newspaper.
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.
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“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.”
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.
The FBI has released a sketch of a person of interest, but other than that has released no additional information about a suspect.
Rather than allocating money toward licensed centers that could provide care from trained professionals, or toward strengthening social safety nets, Georgia is poised to join a slate of 22 other states directing public funds to crisis pregnancy centers.
When Georgia resident Rebecca DeHart started experiencing the worst pain she’d ever felt, she turned to what she thought was a medical facility that could provide her care as an uninsured patient.
“I was crying, again I had not ever been in so much pain in my life. I was in tears, at the counter, I thought it was a medical facility. And I said ‘I need to see the doctor, I might have an ectopic pregnancy,'” DeHart testified during a recent Georgia House Health and Human Services Committee hearing.
“She put the [pregnancy] test kind of on a shelf above my head and she said, ‘We’ll get to your results but I want you to look at some things first.’ And she gave me a series of pamphlets …. It wasn’t until I opened a baby announcement with pictures of fetuses on the inside that I understood what was happening,” DeHart said.
DeHart had sought help at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), one of thousands of facilities around the country whose primary goal is to dissuade patients from having an abortion.
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Georgia is facing a health-care crisis; it has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation. It also ranks poorly on infant health and mortality. March of Dimes gave Georgia a “D” for preterm births in its 2015 Premature Birth Report Card, noting in an accompanying press release that “Babies who survive an early birth often face serious and lifelong health problems, including breathing problems, jaundice, vision loss, cerebral palsy and intellectual delays.” The organization also cited preterm or premature births as the leading cause of infant death.
These are symptoms of a wider problem in Georgia: an overall lack of access to facilities where patients, particularly those in rural areas, can obtain comprehensive reproductive health-care services.
Yet rather than allocating money toward licensed centers that could provide care from trained professionals, or toward strengthening social safety nets, Georgia is poised to join a slate of 22 other states directing public funds to CPCs. On Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk right now is SB 308, which creates a potential $2 million grant program to fund CPCs. Deal has until May 3 to veto the legislation. If he does not, it will automatically become law.
In order to qualify to receive funding, an organization need only be a nonprofit operating for at least one year, “whose mission and practice is to provide alternatives to abortion services to medically indigent women at no cost.”
CPCs use deceptive tactics—like lying about the services they provide or implying they are a fully staffed medical clinic when they are not—to get pregnant folks in the door. Their sole goal is to keep these people from having abortions, including by providing medically inaccurate or misleading information about abortion procedures. As Georgia Life Alliance, an affiliate of the anti-choice National Right to Life organization, wrote on its blog in support of SB 308, “The open doors and compassionate support of Georgia’s pregnancy care centers are the most effective tool we have to reach the abortion-minded woman.”
Still, proponents of SB 308 have framed the grant program as a way to address pregnant Georgians’ need for care, especially when they do not choose abortion. “When our party has been a party pushing for decreased access to abortion facilities, and has so stressed the need not to have an abortion, I think we have a moral responsibility to say, ‘If you make the choice, if you choose life, and you need help, we’ll be there to help you,” said the bill’s house sponsor, Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), during debate on the house floor last month.
The bill lists quite a few services that the grant program will fund, including pregnancy tests, sexually transmitted infection tests, and ultrasounds; nutrition education; housing, education, and employment assistance; adoption services; parenting education; baby supplies like clothing, car seats, and cribs; and information on receiving Medicaid coverage.
The bills’ opponents, however, expressed concern about the accessibility and quality of those services at CPCs.
“These CPCs, in large part, are simply not equipped to handle pregnant women’s care. Some of them provide only counseling and pregnancy testing,” said Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) in opposition to the bill during debate on the senate floor. “Only a limited number of them provide ultrasound and sexually transmitted disease testing. And many [CPCs] have to refer out for prenatal and emergency care services.”
This was the case for Rebecca DeHart, who testified during the public committee hearing days before the bill went to the house floor. DeHart’s pregnancy test came back negative—she did not have an ectopic pregnancy—but she was still in a lot of pain.
“In the end … I had a cyst the size of an orange that burst on my ovary,” DeHart said she learned after going to a health clinic in her hometown, as the CPC was unable to diagnose or treat her medical condition.
DeHart, who is now the executive director of the Democratic Party of Georgia, said she was ultimately able to have a healthy pregnancy when she was ready, but the burst cyst did result in damage to one of her ovaries. “I am very happy that did not prohibit me, even though my ovary is damaged, from being able to have children later,” she said.
“A lot of these crisis pregnancy centers don’t have medical staff on board, and if they do, they are nurse practitioners, or maybe just sonographer technicians that might or might not have the ability to diagnose actual issues with high-risk pregnancies,” said Molly “MK” Anderson, public policy associate and lobbyist at the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC), in an interview with Rewire. FWHC is a key opponent of the bill, with Anderson leading its lobbying and advocacy work.
Despite concerns about the quality and competency of care CPCs can provide, pregnant Georgians with few options may continue turning to them for services, a prospect that is only made more probable by this grant program.
The Georgia Obstetrical and Gynecological Society predicted that by 2020, 75 percent of Primary Care Service Areas (PCSA) outside Atlanta, “will lack sufficient obstetric services.” PCSAs are geographic regions based on Medicare patient travel to their primary care providers; Georgia has 159 counties, but 82 PCSAs outside Atlanta.
It was also hard to miss the talk at the capitol—from both Republicans and Democrats—about Georgia’s rural hospital closures. This growing problem, coupled with an existing lack of OB-GYNs, means pregnant Georgians find themselves with few options to receive care before, during, and after a pregnancy.
According to the Georgia Maternal and Infant Health Research Group (membership login required), “24 percent of all pregnant women in Georgia now drive more than 45 minutes to access their obstetric provider. These women are 1.5 times more likely to deliver preterm than women who drive less than 15 minutes.”
This lack of access also impacts the ability of pregnant Georgians to manage conditions—such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or anemia—that can become exacerbated by pregnancy, as well as to receive critical care during a high-risk pregnancy.
There are also disturbing racial disparities in access, or lack thereof, and maternal deaths. Throughout the country, Black women are approximately four times as likely to die from pregnancy complications as white women; however, this is not necessarily tied to a greater risk of an underlying complication.
“[I]n a national study of five medical conditions that are common causes of maternal death and injury… black women did not have a significantly higher prevalence than white women of any of these conditions. However, the black women in the study were two to three times more likely to die than the white women who had the same complication,” a 2011 report from the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals stated.
Democrats in both chambers asked why money was being allocated for the CPC grant program, but not for Medicaid expansion, which could potentially be a boon for both rural hospitals and Georgians who are or may become pregnant. For that matter, even as proponents of the bill articulated a need for pregnant people to receive support services, legislation to reduce access to government safety nets gained traction in both chambers: Rep. Cooper, the house sponsor of SB 308, was also the house sponsor of a bill to reduce the maximum time a person can receive cash assistance from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
“And when we are considering bills like SB 389 to cut TANF benefits and make it harder on families with children, I think you can see the hypocrisy in passing SB 308. And additionally when we refuse to expand Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of Georgians, yet we want to give money for what is being seen as health-care services, I think you can see the hypocrisy in that as well,” said Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick (D-Lithonia) in opposition to the bill during debate on the house floor.
Both sides agree on at least one thing: SB 308 is about reducing the number of abortions. But providing grant money to CPCs to expand their reach, at a time when many Georgians struggle to access the reproductive health-care services they need, is dangerous policy. For pregnant Georgians seeking to carry a pregnancy to term, and those seeking to terminate a pregnancy, CPCs just won’t cut it.
“We are talking about facilities that offer services that are free—free pregnancy tests, free ultrasounds—and that often attracts people who are uninsured, who are in our [Medicaid] coverage gap, or don’t feel safe going to a provider,” FWHC’s Anderson said. “And these are folks who need care, need comprehensive care, need professionals who actually know what they are doing to provide care.”
“[SB 308] was under the guise of being comprehensive health care. Which I thought was a total sham,” said Oriaku Njoku, co-founder and executive director of Access Reproductive Care – Southeast (ARC-SE), referring to the extensive comments made by supporters of the bill in both chambers, in an interview with Rewire. ARC-SE was involved in the opposition to the bill at the state capitol.
“And the reason I say that is because when you are talking about comprehensive health care, to me that also includes abortion access, it also includes trans health, it also includes maternal mortality, infant mortality, like all of these things are included,” Njoku said. “And I definitely feel that this was a missed opportunity to do right by Georgians.”
This bill passed 31 to 16 in the senate along party lines, while the house saw a vote of 103 to 52, with several Republican members choosing to walk—that is, skip voting—rather than vote against their party. Gov. Deal has until May 3 to veto the bill; otherwise, SB 308 will become law.
On February 16 of last year, I was sitting on a hard wooden bench, nervous in anticipation of my first legislative hearing at the Georgia state capitol. My colleagues and I arrived early to save seats, but it wasn’t long until the room was packed with people. It wasn’t till much later, after this hearing and others were over, that I realized the room was packed mostly with advocates for reproductive health who were troubled by the bill in question at this hearing. HB 954 had been introduced the previous week, and it immediately required a coordinated legislative strategy and grassroots mobilization to defeat. HB 954, later known as the “Women as Livestock Bill” thanks to insensitive comments by State Rep. Terry England (R-Auburn), would be the first ban on legal, pre-viable abortion procedures in Georgia since the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court cases of 1973. In our state, it would also be the most restrictive legislation regarding reproductive health care since the Women’s Right to Know Act was passed in Georgia in 2007.
HB 954 stung, and it stung hard. The bill’s primary sponsor and champion, Rep. Doug McKillip (R-Athens), had flipped from a pro-choice Democrat to an anti-choice Republican after the 2010 elections. It was a slap in the face by a former friend in the legislature, and we were then faced with the difficult task of defeating one of the most onerous bills to restrict abortion in Georgia’s history. Worse, it looked to be greased for passage; assigned to hostile committees in the House and Senate with adamantly anti-abortion Chairpersons, it glided through both chambers despite highly emotionally charged floor debates.
I was aghast to see that as we fought the bill, the grassroots tactics weren’t working. We packed the hearings with citizen lobbyists opposed to the bill. In one hearing before the Senate Health and Human Services committee, a reporter struggled to find a single proponent of the bill to interview among a crowd of over 100 reproductive health advocates, dressed in black and wearing “No on 954” stickers. We held a walk around the Capitol that attracted over 500 activists from across the state. We mounted a strong, steady campaign to urge advocates to speak out against the bill via letters, faxes, phone calls, and emails. But still the bill moved forward.
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I am the community engagement coordinator at the Feminist Women’s Health Center (FWHC) in Atlanta, Georgia’s only independent 501(c)(3) non-profit clinic that is locally based and woman-owned and -operated. Each year during the legislative session, my colleagues and I go down to the Capitol to lobby for our rights. I train grassroots lobbyists on how to talk to their legislators and advocate for themselves with regard to reproductive rights and other salient issues. The 2012 session was fairly quiet until HB 954 was introduced—then all legislative hell broke loose.
Like many state-level activists, we fought hard to defeat anti-abortion legislation last year. We were up against formidable opponents of reproductive health and rights in Georgia: strong anti-abortion majorities in the Georgia General Assembly, the determined group Georgia Right to Life, which threatened legislators’ political careers, and anti-abortion advocates who lied and manipulated legislators’ emotions to try and get HB 954 passed. At hearings, I listened to a North Carolina-based osteopath make outrageous and false assertions regarding fetal pain, citing an 18-year old, debunked article as his main source. I watched other HB 954 proponents lie, pass around fetus models, and bounce babies with developmental disabilities on their laps while sobbing about the “rights of the unborn.” At no time did they discuss the rights of people and their families to decide to terminate a pregnancy. At no time did they address the potential financial and emotional hardships families face in a society with profound lack of support for unwanted, unintended pregnancies and those involving fetal anomalies. And at no time did the legislators acknowledge that they would punish doctors for providing care within their scope of practice.
I heard the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. McKillip, defend the banning of abortions after an arbitrary 20 weeks of pregnancy by claiming, “You won’t be able to legislate so that everything that works out right … this is a separate life that is deserving of protection from the state, and that is the point at which that life’s deserving of protection [sic] overcomes that of the other issues being discussed.” Those “other issues” are the rights of pregnant people to access reproductive health care. As Rep. Yasmin Neal said during the first state House hearing, “I don’t think it’s fair to take this time away from women … it’s [at] a point in this discussion where women’s bodies are just shells. Empty shells.”
The potential effects of HB 954 are real and serious. HB 954 seeks to drastically sever a patient’s right to reproductive medical services. This bill is not based on science, sound medical practice, or constitutional law. The following is a brief list of what is contained in HB 954.
It falsely claims that a fetus can feel pain at 22 weeks since the last menstrual period (LMP).
It redefines gestational age so that the length of a pregnancy is based on the number of weeks from fertilization, not the first day of the last menstrual period (LMP).
It criminalizes providing abortions on pre-viable fetuses.
The only exception to the above rule is if the mother’s physical health is in danger, and even then only in the event of potential “substantial and irreversible” damage. There is no exception for mental health.
There is no exception for rape or incest.
The only exception for fetal anomalies, despite the fact that many tests for fetal anomalies occur around 20 weeks, is for pregnancies diagnosed as “medically futile.” Because this is a vague and non-medical term, the law will thereby force a woman to carry to term a fetus that may have serious physical injuries or deformities or which may not have the ability to sustain life. Worse, if the pregnancy meets the conditions for the exceptions, the doctor may perform an abortion as long as he or she uses a method to do so that would allow the fetus the best chance to live outside of the womb. Since the pregnancies in question would be pre-viable, the likelihood that the fetus would survive is slim to none.
There are many other potential effects of HB 954 as well. HB 954 will curb access to care for some of the most vulnerable people in our state, with the most adverse effects felt by people of color and individuals living in poverty who face many barriers to prenatal care, including access to high-risk perinatologists. (There are only six high-risk perinatologists in Georgia who practice outside of the Atlanta metro area.) SPARK Reproductive Justice NOW! has additional information about the inequities that HB 954 would perpetuate and worsen.
On March 29 of last year, I was outside the Capitol when the House passed HB 954 just before sine die. I expected to see the windows explode, hear wails of distress, or get some other sign that such a terrible piece of legislation had passed. When I went back inside, I only saw the distressed, discouraged, and occasionally crying faces of the individuals who fought so hard to defeat HB 954. As my colleague and I left the Capitol, we passed three women from Georgia Right to Life who were smirking at us, clearly happy that their pet legislation had passed. It was hard to take after a huge loss.
The next days and weeks were difficult. Hardest of all was fielding questions from supporters and angry community members who wanted to know what they could do. We encouraged them to take action by contacting Gov. Nathan Deal. His veto was our last hope for defeating the legislation. However, Deal signed the bill into law on May 1, 2012.
For the next few months we continued to field outraged calls and emails asking, “What can I do to stop this bill?” “Nothing,” I thought wearily. But I had to keep encouraging activists to fight back. I implored them to be more proactive and to support initiatives to help women access clinics in states that allow abortions after 22 weeks LMP. In the meantime, FWHC created protocols to comply with the new legislation and began notifying callers to our clinic that we couldn’t provide them abortion care after January 1 if they were 22 or more weeks LMP by that date. In that event, we would need to provide them with a referral to the very limited number of providers in other states, the closest being in New York City and Baltimore.
On December 22, we received the news that the Superior Court of Fulton County had temporarily suspended parts of HB 954 that ban pre-viability abortions. This last-minute decision filled our weary hearts with joy and gratitude, just before the bill would have gone into full effect. For now, the rights of some of the most vulnerable people in Georgia are safe. But we must remain ever-vigilant to support those fragile rights.
The fight to stop HB 954 involved a large, strong coalition of reproductive health and rights champions in Georgia. We pulled together to mount a strong, grassroots campaign and a carefully coordinated legislative strategy. The deck was stacked against us. In 2011, Georgia was able to escape the record-breaking 93 laws enacted to restrict abortion across the United States. In 2012, many Georgia lawmakers needed a piece of legislation to take home to their districts for re-election. They needed a token anti-abortion bill, and they got it—by standing on the backs of women and others in Georgia who need access and rights to reproductive health care.
Now, activists are riled up and ready to fight back hard. Last year brought too many misogynistic comments and restrictions on abortion and contraceptives. Georgians are waking up from an apathetic period to find that many state lawmakers have become increasingly conservative and hostile to social justice issues. Last year they passed a bill to restrict abortion, based on false claims, political maneuvering, and a disregard for science and the will of their constituents. This year lawmakers will not be so lucky.