Opening an abortion clinic in a state certain to ban abortion once the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade could be seen as a pointless exercise. However, the opposite is true: It’s a gesture of optimism and fortitude, and a recognition of the fact that where abortion is banned, other reproductive health services will be all the more in demand.
“We owe it to people to go down this path and do everything we can,” said Julie Burkhart, founder and president of Wellspring Health Access, a new organization working to open a clinic in Casper, Wyoming.
Prior to founding Wellspring, Burkhart founded and ran Trust Women, which operates clinics in Kansas and Oklahoma. According to Christie Burkhart, Wellspring’s chief operations officer, it was Wyoming abortion fund Chelsea’s Fund that approached her sister Julie about opening a clinic in the state.
For decades, Wyoming had only one abortion provider, located in Jackson, a popular vacation destination in the state’s northwest corner. Since February, however, the state has been without procedural abortion services because of a contract dispute between longtime provider Dr. Brent Blue and local hospital system St. John’s Health.
Currently, one other Jackson doctor provides medication abortion, as does the telemedicine service Just the Pill. For in-clinic abortions, the closest options for Wyoming residents are in Colorado, Utah, or Montana. Geographically, most Wyomingites were always closer to these out-of-state clinics. Casper, on the other hand, is more centrally located. It’s also easily reached from major highways, potentially improving abortion access for many in South Dakota and Nebraska.
But it’s unlikely that Wellspring’s new clinic will ever be able to provide abortions. In March, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon (R) signed a “trigger” ban that will automatically outlaw abortion within five days of the Supreme Court overturning Roe. The Casper clinic was set to open this month, potentially allowing for up to a few weeks of abortion care depending on the timing of the impending Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. But then, in the early morning hours of May 25, the clinic sustained extensive damage in a fire. The incident is being investigated by local and federal authorities as arson.
“It was very obvious that the fire came from one specific place, with an accelerant,” Julie Burkhart said. “Tentatively, what we’re looking at is about six months to once again rehabilitate the clinic. It will be more work than we had to do initially.”
On Thursday, the Casper Police Department released surveillance photos and video of the suspect, who appears to be a white woman and had been seen fleeing the scene by a witness.
“This wasn’t about protecting life; we had an apartment building right next door full of people who were sleeping. This was a violent act committed against a legitimate health-care practice done with the sole intent of disrupting our services,” Burkhart said. “This is about power.”
Fortunately, Wellspring rents the building from a supporter, who purchased it specifically for the clinic. The clinic will be able to rebuild and open, and are looking into operating from a temporary space in the meantime—if they can find a supportive landlord. “We don’t need any more headaches,” Burkhart said. Members of a community advisory committee, which Wellspring has relied on throughout its process of entering the state, are helping look for space.
When rebuilt, the clinic will open regardless of whether it is able to provide abortions. It will offer gynecological care, family planning services, and gender-affirming care, all of which are in demand. Wyoming is the second least populated state after Alaska, and because it is so large, rural, and mountainous, many of its residents have to drive long distances for all sorts of health care.
“Casper has been working on building the overall medical community in the city, so it’s more of a hub and a destination for medical care,” Burkhart said.
And while the fire could be interpreted as a sign of wider hostility toward the clinic, it’s not so simple. I was born and raised in Wyoming, and for most of my life, the state’s “small government” conservatives really weren’t interested in interfering with people’s right to have an abortion. Compared to other red states, Wyoming has comparatively few major abortion restrictions on the books: a parental involvement law, a ban on abortion after viability except in cases of life endangerment or severely compromised health, and a ban on public funding for abortion with the same exceptions. Like other Mountain West states, Wyoming politics have long had a more libertarian bent.
However, as the Republican Party has turned further to the right, more restrictive measures have made it through the state legislature. In 2017, Wyoming adopted its first new abortion restrictions in nearly 30 years, requiring that providers offer an ultrasound before an abortion. In 2019, lawmakers added penalties for noncompliance to the state’s abortion reporting requirement. In 2020, the state house passed a bill requiring a 48-hour delay, though it died in committee in the state senate. The swift passage of the trigger ban, which the governor signed just over a month after its introduction in the legislature, was out of character for Wyoming.
“Knowing all of this coming in, we didn’t feel like it was enough to stop us. Wyoming is a great state, and it needs reproductive health care. I think some of these elected officials are really out of step with the people,” Burkhart said.
“If there’s a physician out there who is interested in living in the Mountain West and providing services, we continue to need physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants interested in working with us.”
Christie Burkhart added that when the news broke in April about the clinic’s opening, the support was almost overwhelming; over 70 people volunteered.
Wellspring is fundraising to cover its rebuilding needs, which include replacing some furnishings and instruments that had already been moved into the space.
“The fire hasn’t deterred us,” Christie Burkhart said. “We will be pressing forward.”