Teton County judge tells state to explain abortion bans in court

The state will have to explain how the near-total and medical abortion laws protect Wyomingites’ public health and welfare.
Ninth District Court Judge Melissa Owens granted a temporary restraining order on the law that would ban medical abortions back in June. (Kathryn Ziesig/Jackson Hole News & Guide)

A lawsuit over the future of reproductive rights in Wyoming had another day in Teton County court this week. 

Judge Melissa Owens ruled the state will have to explain how its abortion bans protect Wyomingites’ public health and welfare, among other information. This comes after the state said it wouldn’t provide any of the requested evidence in the case. 

The audience — all women — was much smaller Monday than in past high-stakes hearings. Spectators from across the state filled the public benches earlier this year when Owens blocked the state’s near-total and medical abortion bans.

This week’s procedural hearing is part of a long legal battle that could eventually end up in the Wyoming Supreme Court. 

How did we get here?

Conservative state lawmakers passed two abortion bans earlier this year. Reproductive rights supporters quickly sued the state and others to keep the laws from going into effect.

The plaintiffs include Jackson OB-GYN Giovannina Anthony — one of few abortion providers in the state — and Christine Lichtenfels, who runs abortion access group Chelsea’s Fund. Lichtenfels was at the Monday hearing and viewed the judge’s decision as a win.

“We’re pleased that we’re moving forward in getting more information and ensuring that people in Wyoming can still make their own healthcare decisions,” she said after the ruling. “This is a normal process between attorneys where attorneys on one side may object and you’d always try to reach an agreement.”

In this case, the state defense team objected to providing any of the requested information, such as explanations of the state’s interests in passing the laws and clarifications about language in the statutes.

Special Assistant Attorney General Jay Jerde argued that these requests do not constitute facts in the case and therefore aren’t relevant to the case. 

“Where’s the facts?” Jerde asked the courtroom. “State interests are not facts.”

Religion questions 

In her ruling, Owens said the state would have to provide most of the requested information, including identifying which medical publications physicians can refer to in order to interpret the law’s language. 

But plaintiffs didn’t get everything they wanted.

They were aiming to show that Wyoming’s abortion laws were religiously motivated, pointing to statements on the websites of the lawmakers that sponsored the bans.

For example, Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, says on his campaign site that he believes all human life is created with “a specific purpose by God’s Divine Hand.”

Owens ultimately said the state doesn’t have to submit this kind of information as evidence.

“These seek information regarding individual legislators’ viewpoints and campaign materials, which the court finds irrelevant,” Owens said. 

Defendants have about a month to provide the other requested information. Abortion remains legal in Wyoming as the case makes its way through the courts. 

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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