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Wyoming now has a clinic that provides surgical abortions. The Casper reproductive health clinic recently opened its doors, but its opening was delayed by about eleven months because it was torched by an arsonist.
Wellspring Health Access Clinic Founder Julie Burkhart said, at that time, it was just about ready to open.
“We were going to open mid-June of ‘22. The arson attack was on May 25,” said Burkhart. “We had all of our physicians recruited, all of our staff members recruited, everything was essentially in place.”
The fire caused heavy damage, melting lights, furniture and equipment. The building’s interior had to be gutted and reconstructed. Burkhart said the rebuild actually cost more than the initial build of the facility, coming down to about $290,000.
Burkhart said none of the staff decided to leave but, “we had to spend a lot of time talking about what this means, how people feel about an attack like this on the clinic where they’re going to be working and providing care. So, there was that emotional turmoil.”
The opening was continually pushed back because of construction delays.
“It wasn’t a pointed effort to try to prohibit us or delay us from opening,” Burkhart said. “It was just some of the natural things that would happen.”
The clinic joins Women’s Health and Family Care in Jackson — the only other place offering pregnancy-ending care in the state. That clinic only provides medical abortions, while the Casper clinic will offer surgical as well.
Restrictions on abortion
During the eleven months since the arson, a lot happened in the politics of abortion nationally and in the state: the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon certified the trigger ban and made abortion illegal in the state, and then a judge put a temporary stay on that abortion trigger ban until the courts made a decision.
In January, the 67th Wyoming Legislature convened. Representative Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) introduced a bill known as Life is a Human Right that tried to answer some of the questions the court had.
“Abortion is not healthcare because it isn’t, for so, so many reasons,” Rodriguez-Williams said, speaking on the floor of the House during the session. “And I won’t waste the body’s time. But I’ll highlight again that the goal of abortion is the death of a human being.”
But many lawmakers expressed worry about the constitutionality of that bill. Representative Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) put it simply during a House floor debate.
“We’re giving the people who want pro-choice ammo,” he said. “That’s all we’re doing. And we are going to regret it. I’m fairly certain.”
But the bill passed both the Senate and the House. Gov. Gordon let it become law without his signature, citing similar worries and saying the question should be decided with a vote of the people. Those worries did come true and the new abortion ban was immediately challenged and has been put on hold temporarily until a decision is made by the courts.
Local pushback to clinic
The day the Casper clinic opened, Casper Mayor Bruce Knell responded to an article about the clinic’s opening using his personal Facebook account with an animation of a man dancing around a fire. In his personal views, Knell is against legal abortions.
“I Googled hellfire, and that’s what came up,” said Knell. “This in no way, in no way, no how, was ever meant to incite any violence, or any further destruction of their clinic.”
His response incited pushback in the community, but he said he wasn’t wearing his mayor’s hat when he made that response. As mayor, he said he thinks differently.
“We encourage all taxpaying entities to be able to have a place to own and operate and flourish,” he said. “If the demand is there in our community, their bottom line is up to them.”
Knell acknowledged that the discussion about the abortion clinic has become terse and divided, but he said no matter people’s opinions, including his own, the clinic is a law-abiding business and no one should encourage violence.
“People need to learn how to have a conversation, and how to talk about how they feel,” said Knell. “Violence is absolutely uncalled for. It’s unwanted and it’s not necessary.”
Twenty-two year old Lorna Roxanne Gree has been arrested and charged for setting the clinic on fire. She’s currently awaiting trial.
Wellspring Health Access clinic’s Burkhart said the voices against opening the clinic have been in the minority while the positive voices, “those voices really outnumber the people who wish to spew their rigid ideologies and their hatred towards us. It’s been much more of a welcoming community than I think some people might have thought.”
Tonight, May 2, the clinic plans to be present at Casper’s city council meeting as a show of strength after the fire and the negative feedback.