Wyoming abortion rights advocates fight for access up to the last minute

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(CHEYENNE, Wyo.) — For Wyoming, a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade means an automatic ban on abortion as the state is one of 13 that have enacted “trigger bans” on abortions. But even as Roe stood, the state sat in a so-called “abortion desert” where access to pregnancy termination was few and far between.

In a ruling Friday, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that protected the constitutional right to abortion nationally. Now, it will be up to the state legislatures to decide on abortion rights.

In Wyoming, even anticipating this possibility, advocates for abortion rights fought to gain access to abortion care for patients in the state — and questioned how a historically libertarian state became so restrictive.

Wyoming law tightens

In March, Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill passed by both the Wyoming House and Senate. The bill, HB0092, would ban abortion in all circumstances except rape, incest or if the mother is in serious risk of death or injury, if the protections of Roe are overturned. It would also prohibit the use of government funding towards an abortion.

Following a Supreme Court ruling, the law could become active in about a month.

The governor’s office told ABC News that Gordon will adhere to the process outlined in the bill and has no additional comment regarding his choice to sign the legislation.

On Friday, Gordon tweeted a statement in support of the Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it “a decisive win for those who have fought for the rights of the unborn for the past 50 years.”

Republican state Rep. Patrick Sweeney, who voted against the trigger law, said in a press call Friday that it was difficult for the House to get the rape and incest clause included in the Senate’s bill, and he worries that clause could be removed in the legislation’s next session.

Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of Pro-Choice Wyoming, told ABC News before the Supreme Court’s decision that this ban could become reality “sooner than we had ever thought possible.”

She said in prior legislative cycles, the organization was always able to find “compassionate, realistic” elected officials who would be able to hold such anti-abortion laws from reaching the governor’s desk.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming tweeted Friday in support of the court’s decision to overturn Roe.

“The Supreme Court today ruled to return power back to states to legislate in a way that reflects the will of their voters. With today’s decision, the U.S. will no longer have the same anti-life laws as countries like communist China & North Korea,” he wrote.

Brent Blue, who provided abortions in Wyoming for decades, said the new state ban is hypocritical to Wyoming political tradition.

“It’s sexist, it’s racist and it’s anti-Wyoming,” said Blue, who spoke with ABC News before the Supreme Court’s decision. “It’s the government interfering with the lives of individuals, when the Republican party in the state has dedicated itself for decades to getting the government out of the lives of individuals.”

Blue said that the new legislation has no accountability because there is no medical or financial assistance offered to children who are born to parents without resources, saying “the hypocrisy is overwhelming.”

“To try to limit access is really promoting poverty and is really racist… it’s going to affect poor women and women of color, and the true irony and crime involved is that the same people voting for this are voting against Medicaid expansion for parents who have no resources,” Blue added.

The push to open a second clinic

Currently, Wyoming has one health care center that offers abortions, the Women’s Health & Family Care in Jackson, which has the phrase “management of unplanned pregnancy,” on their website’s gynecology page. The center’s pregnancy termination services are limited to medication abortions, which can be administered only up to 10 weeks’ gestation.

However, Wellspring Health Access, a national abortion rights organization, is in the midst of building a full-service abortion clinic in Casper.

Wellspring Health Access has been working to establish the clinic for almost two years, its founder and president Julie Burkhart told ABC News. But just as the clinic was reaching its opening date, an arson attack on May 25 pushed back the clinic’s opening by several weeks.

Even before the arson attack, the clinic has become home to regular protests by anti-abortion rights groups, according to Burkhart.

Now, with the Supreme Court decision, Wellspring may never be able to provide abortions in their Wyoming clinic. Burkhart said in a Friday statement the ruling will impact those “who already face the greatest barriers to access” including “people living in rural communities, the Native population and people with low incomes.”

Burkhart told ABC News before the decision that Wyoming residents sought out the organization to establish a clinic in their state. The clinic was strategically placed in central Wyoming to reach not only Wyoming patients, but also those who live in restrictive nearby states such as Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana.

Before the May ban was introduced, Wyoming law had moderate restrictions on abortions, allowing abortions to occur until the fetus was viable, around 24 weeks, following the framework of Roe.

Therefore, Burkhart said it had made sense for Wellspring to go to Wyoming when they started planning the Casper clinic in 2020, since it was a historically libertarian state where laws lacked major restrictions on abortion.

Burkhart said the Wellspring team has found much support in Casper from both vendors and community members, despite the recent arson attack.

“My absolute assessment is that there are some folks who we know who have been elected to the state Legislature over the past couple of cycles who do not speak for the broader majority of Wyomingites and they have their axe to grind,” Burkhart told ABC News. “They have their agenda, and unfortunately, it’s not what people in the state feel is needed or necessary.”

While most Americans nationally support abortion rights, a 2014 Pew Research poll found abortion beliefs to be right down the middle in the state, with 48% of Wyoming adults feeling abortion should be legal in most cases, and 49% believing it should be illegal in most cases.

Before the Friday ruling, Burkhart said Wellspring was already working on a legal strategy that she is hopeful will protect their ability to provide full reproductive care. She said Friday it is an “immediate” priority for the organization to determine the best legal steps going forward.

“The Wyoming constitution has strong protections for Wyomingites’ bodily autonomy. We will fight tooth and nail to protect this fundamental right for the people of Wyoming, including in the courts. We call on Wyoming lawmakers to honor the Wyoming constitution and take action to protect abortion access for the people of this state,” Burkhart said in a statement Friday.

Going out of state for care to end a pregnancy

The average distance a person in Wyoming must drive to obtain an abortion before 14 weeks was 132 miles, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights organization. That distance may expand as bans emerge, pushing people to leave their state to obtain abortion care.

Riata Little Walker, a lifelong Wyoming resident in Casper, said she had to travel to Denver, Colorado, to receive care when her pregnancy took a turn for the worse in January 2020.

Walker and her husband were ready to have their first child when doctors found a complex combination of heart defects in the fetus. At 22 weeks, Walker said she decided to be induced into labor to terminate the pregnancy.

“We were given our options, but there was no talk of leaving the hospital,” Walker told ABC News. “There was a chance our daughter could have survived birth, but she was incurable and she would have suffered greatly.”

Ultimately, Walker said she decided to undergo “termination for medical reasons,” or TFMR. In the second and third trimester, abortions can be performed by inducing labor, which includes labor and delivery.

Dr. Jeffrey Marcus, a board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist with North Atlanta Women’s Specialists in Georgia, told U.S. News TFMR is “when a pregnancy is ended due to a structural, genetic or chromosomal abnormality of the baby or when continuing the pregnancy would risk the health of mother.” Marcus said because it was technically abortion, an overturning of Roe would mean TFMR would not be a guaranteed option for women who receive such diagnoses.

“A lot of people don’t want to look at TFMR as abortion, but it is,” Walker said.

After the induced labor, Walker’s daughter survived for 10 minutes, during which the family said goodbye, took pictures and had her baptized. The care and compassion Walker felt from the medical professionals in Denver impacted her, she said.

“We were able to choose the best option for us and have the time that we needed to take care of our daughter,” Walker said. “Most people have to go to an abortion clinic and walk through protesters.”

Walker said she and her husband were fortunate because they had the resources to get top-level care in Denver, including her mother driving them there. The one-night stay for the procedure cost $19,000, she said.

Walker said she comes from a conservative, Catholic family of Wyoming ranchers, but added that even her great-grandparents believed abortion should be “a private decision.”

“Wyoming has had a terrible shift,” she said of the state’s politics, adding it “used to be ‘live and let live.'”

The possibility of a ban in Wyoming has Walker concerned for the futures of women in the state.

“I was pro-life with exceptions for rape, incest or if the mother had to make a decision [for her health],” Walker said, before the Supreme Court’s ruling. “But then I realized that actually meant I was pro-choice. It’s too gray to say one situation is OK and one isn’t, not everyone is going to agree, but they should have a choice.”

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