CASPER, Wyoming (AP) — When organizers decided earlier this year to open a new women’s health clinic in Wyoming, they were optimistic about their plans, even though they knew they would face the only the opposition of the clinic. Provides abortion services in the state.
There are expected protest and harassment messages. Things got more tense after the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court ruling that, if finalized, could make abortion illegal in Wyoming and half the state.
Then last week, their building was damaged by what police believe was a deliberate fire.
None of this has derailed plans to open clinics — a rarity in Republican-majority areas in the U.S. where most abortion providers are currently struggling to stay in business, let alone expand services.
“We can’t be bullied into submission,” said Julie Burkhart, the founder of the clinic, as she watched Casper police and firefighters investigate the blaze across the street.
For years, Wyoming has prided itself on a “laissez-faire” Western conservatism that takes a hands-off approach to government-making social policy, including abortion. However, this situation is changing.
In March, Republican Gov. Mark Gordon signed a bill that would make Wyoming one of the states that outlawed abortion if the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion available Legalized nationwide. The only exception is in the case of rape or incest, to save the mother’s life or save the mother from serious non-mental health problems.
Gordon, who is running for re-election this year, has not made abortion and other culture war issues a feature of his campaign or tenure. But the recent right-leaning of the Supreme Court and state legislature has made abortion an issue in Wyoming.
The planned clinics are completely ignoring this trend.
Its supporters include Casper resident Riata Little Walker, who recently spoke at a rally in support of the clinic. In an interview, Little Walker described herself as life-supporting until two years ago, when doctors said fetal heart and chromosomal abnormalities could cause her to miscarry, prompting her to have an abortion five months into her pregnancy.
If she can’t get an abortion at a Colorado hospital, Little Walker said she may have to deal with a traumatic abortion at home.
“Not all aborted babies are unwanted,” Walker Jr. said. “It needs to be available to people when they need it, even if they want their own children and they have to make the toughest decisions any parent could possibly make.”
Her views may not be the majority of Casper, a working-class city of 58,000 people, Wyoming’s second-largest city after the capital, Cheyenne.
Known as “Oil City,” Casper has a long history as a center for oil drilling and cattle raising, and more recently in uranium mining and wind energy. The city sprawls at the base of Mount Casper, with a skyline framed by 180-foot (54-meter) concrete spires built in the 1960s.
After the clinic fire, a pastor and supporter of the clinic, Pastor Leslie Kee of the local Unitarian Universalist Church, called for tolerance.
“All of this is fanning the flames of division, fear and helplessness and feeling like things are getting out of hand,” Key said. “Someone has to come forward and call for calm, love and peace. It comes from the heart.”
No one was injured in the blaze, which was being renovated for a clinic, with broken windows and smoke damage. Authorities are investigating whether the fire was linked to someone who was seen fleeing the building with what appeared to be gas canisters and bags.
After investigating the damage, Burckhardt said she expected the previously planned mid-June opening to be “delayed by at least a few weeks.”
Burkhart has faced the daunting challenge of opposing the opening of abortion clinics before.
She worked closely with George Tiller, an abortion doctor in Wichita, Kansas, who was assassinated in a church in 2009. Four years after his murder, Burckhardt helped reopen Tiller’s clinic.
The Wichita clinic, as planned at Casper, enables women to have abortions without driving hundreds of miles to other cities and states.
Colorado, where Codify abortion rights into state law April has long been the leading destination for abortions for many Wyoming women.
“Colorado has been a lifesaver for everyone,” said a Casper woman during her Boulder abortion in 1989, when she was 17 in foster care in a small town in Wyoming.
She declined to be named, citing concerns about her safety and employment prospects from her daughter, a Casper woman who, 20 years later, traveled to Colorado at age 21 to get the medication she needed for an abortion.
While Wyoming continues to have abortions — 98 in the state last year and 91 the year before, according to state data — Abortions are now routinely performed by at most a few medical providers. The state does not track who the providers are, and they rarely disclose their services.
Services at the Casper Clinic will be more open and will include women’s, family planning and gender-affirming healthcare in addition to abortion. That will help fill a void left by the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic, which did not offer abortions, when it closed in 2017 for financial reasons.
Ross Schriftman, an outspoken local opponent of the clinic, expressed dismay at the fire. Still, he said everyone should be against abortion, noting that the goal is not necessarily to make it illegal, but “unthinkable.”
“I don’t have a uterus. But I do have a heart and a mind and the First Amendment. I have every right to talk about my opinion on an issue,” said Shriftman, a member of the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation.
Walker Jr. said her abortion was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
At the Denver hospital, Little Walker and her husband Ian hugged their daughter, whom they named Riana, after she died. They kept her memory in a box containing her ashes in a heart-shaped container, her tiny hand and footprints and a baby blanket.
“I feel like sharing her story and helping people understand abortion is a lot bigger than the propaganda leads you to believe, that’s Riana’s legacy. It’s a lot more complicated. It’s very, very gray. It can affect anyone,” Walker Jr. said .
“When you find yourself in a tough spot, you just want to have options.”
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