Tuesday, April 23

In Wyoming, dueling winds over abortion as Roe v. Wade hangs in balance

Casper, Wyo. — The Supreme Court’s upcoming opinion on abortion rights will have far reaching consequences, especially across rural America, where abortion access is already sparse. Right now, there are six states with just one abortion provider. Oklahoma has none.

In windswept and wide-open Wyoming, opposition to abortion rights is fervent — but the need for care is no different than in other parts of the country.

Abortion in this conservative, rugged state is currently legal up to viability (usually 24 weeks of pregnancy) — but no providers here offer surgical abortions.

Julie Burkhart, president of Wellspring Health Access, is trying to change that, just as the Supreme Court considers the fate of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that granted women the right to choose to have an abortion.

“Services have been lacking here,” Burkhart told CBS News.

Her group is behind the effort to open a women’s health clinic in Casper, which would make it the only abortion provider for hundreds of miles. It was scheduled to open this week.

But in late May, the clinic site became a crime scene.

Wyoming-Abortion Clinic-Fire
Police at the scene of an overnight fire that severely damaged a building  in Casper, Wyoming, on May 25, 2022. It was being renovated to house a new clinic that would provide abortions among its services.

Mead Gruver / AP

A fire ripped through the building, scalding its walls, singeing floorboards and setting back the opening date as much as six months — long after the Supreme Court’s pending decision.

“Do I want to be here talking about someone who committed an act of domestic terrorism in our building? Absolutely not,” Burkhart said. “I wanted to be moving furniture in.”

Law enforcement is investigating the fire as a case of possible arson. Surveillance video released by the Casper Police Department shows someone carrying a gas can through the clinic’s waiting area in the middle of the night. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is offering a $5000 reward for information that leads to an arrest.

An apparent arsonist — a masked, hooded woman — is seen in image taken from May 25, 2022 surveillance video released by Casper, Wyoming police. She’s in a clinic that was being renovated before its scheduled opening. It would offer abortions among its services.

Casper, Wyoming police

“I am not deterred, and neither are the other members of our team,” Burkhart said defiantly.

When it opens, the clinic will offer a range of women’s health services, including abortions. That is, if they’re still legal in Wyoming once Roe’s fate is decided.

Wyoming’s Republican-dominated legislature and governor enacted a “trigger” law in March that would ban nearly all abortions if the Supreme Court overturns the longstanding precedent enshrined in Roe v. Wade. Wyoming’s law makes exceptions for cases of sexual assault, incest and the physical health of the mother.

Twelve other states have enacted so-called trigger bans.

Opposition to the clinic in Casper is vocal, and on most Thursdays, demonstrators gather outside to protest.

“We’ve prayed that some way the Lord would prevent this place from opening. So if it happens to be vandalism and a fire, I’m good with that,” Mike Pyatt, a self-described anti-abortion rights activist, said during a recent demonstration.

Pyatt said he even called Burkhart to try to dissuade her from opening the clinic in Casper.

“Casper is a strong pro-life community, so don’t expect open arms,” he added.

Wyoming’s so-called “trigger ban,” should it take effect, wouldn’t shut down the clinic in Casper, but would still mean people like 24 year-old Hannah, whose identity is being withheld due to concerns for her safety, would have to seek abortions out of state.

Hannah told CBS News her pregnancy earlier this year worsened her already-complicated health issues. And she feared it could even kill her.

“It was pretty much a death sentence,” she said. “I was withering away. I was completely – I was a wreck of a human being. If it would have been an option to carry it to term, I would have.”

So in February, she drove seven hours from her home in Gillette, Wyoming, to a Planned Parenthood in Montana, nearly 500 miles away.

“Any woman, any uterus holder who’s had to have an abortion, does not think it’s the easy choice. It’s never the easy choice,” Hannah said.

She also chafes at the link between religious doctrine and abortion rights.

“My abortion does not affect my conversation with God. I will always have a very, very strong conversation with my God,” Hannah said.

The clinic in Casper will be about two hours from Hannah’s home.

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