CASPER, Wyo. – When organizers earlier this year settled on a summer opening for a new women's health clinic in Wyoming, they felt upbeat about their plans even as they knew they would face opposition to what will be the only such clinic to offer abortions in the state.
There were the expected protests and harassing messages. Things got more tense after a leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that, if finalized, would likely make abortions illegal in Wyoming and half of the states.
Then last week, their building was damaged by a fire police believe was deliberately set.
None of it has derailed plans to open the clinic — a rarity in heavily Republican parts of the United States where most abortion providers at the moment are fighting just to stay in business, let alone expand services.
“We can’t be bullied into submission,” Julie Burkhart, the clinic founder, said as she watched from across the street as Casper police and firefighters investigated the blaze.
For years, Wyoming prided itself on live-and-let-live Western conservatism that took a hands-off approach to setting social policy in government, abortion included. That’s changing, however.
In March, Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, signed a bill that put Wyoming among the states that would outlaw abortion should the Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal nationwide. The only exceptions would be in the event of rape or incest, to save the mother’s life or to save the mother from severe, non-mental health problems.
Gordon, who’s running for re-election this year, hasn’t made abortion and other culture war issues a feature of his campaigns or time in office. But a recent rightward shift of both the Supreme Court and state Legislature has elevated abortion into an issue in Wyoming.
The planned clinic stands in stark defiance of that trend.
Its backers include Riata Little Walker, a Casper resident who recently spoke out at a rally in support of the clinic. In an interview, Little Walker described herself as pro-life until two years ago, when fetal heart and chromosomal abnormalities doctors said would likely cause her to miscarry prompted her to get an abortion five months into her pregnancy.
Had she not been able to get an abortion at a hospital in Colorado, Little Walker said she may have had to face a traumatic miscarriage at home.
“Not all aborted babies are unwanted,” Little Walker said. “This needs to be available for people when they need it, even if they wanted their baby and they have to make the hardest decision that any parent could possibly make.”
Her opinion is probably not the majority view in Casper, a working-class city of 58,000 people that is Wyoming's second-biggest after the capital, Cheyenne.
Known as the “Oil City,” Casper has a long history as a hub of oil drilling and cattle ranching, with more recent activity in uranium mining and wind energy. The city sprawls at the base of Casper Mountain with a skyline dominated by a 180-foot (54-meter) concrete spire built in the 1960s.
After the clinic fire, one minister and clinic supporter, the Rev. Leslie Kee of the local Unitarian Universalist church, called for tolerance by all.
“All this does is fan the flames of division and fear and helplessness and sense that things are spinning out of control,” Kee said. "Somebody's got to step up and call for calm and love and peace. That comes from the human heart.”
No one was injured in the blaze, which left the stucco house being renovated for the clinic with broken windows and smoke damage. Authorities are investigating whether the fire is linked to a person seen running away from the building carrying what appeared to be a gas can and a bag.
After surveying the damage, Burkhart said she expects the previously planned mid-June opening to be delayed by “at least several weeks.”
Burkhart has faced daunting odds against opening abortion clinics before.
She worked closely with Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita, Kansas, abortion doctor who was assassinated at church in 2009. Four years after his murder, Burkhart helped to reopen Tiller’s clinic.
The Wichita clinic, much like the one planned in Casper, enabled women to get abortions without driving hundreds of miles to other cities and states.
Colorado, which codified the right to abortion in state law in April, has long been the primary destination for abortions for many Wyoming women.
“Colorado has been the saving grace for everyone,” said one Casper woman who got an abortion in Boulder when she was a 17-year-old in foster care in a small Wyoming town in 1989.
She declined to be identified, citing concerns for her safety and employment prospects that were shared by her daughter, a Casper woman who went to Colorado to get the drugs required for her own abortion 20 years later, at age 21.
While abortions have continued in Wyoming — there were 98 in the state last year and 91 the year before, according to state figures — only a couple medical providers at most now do abortions regularly. The state doesn't track who the providers are and they seldom publicize their services.
The Casper clinic will be far more open with its services, which in addition to abortions will include women’s, family planning and gender-affirming health care. It will help fill a gap left when the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic, which didn’t provide abortions, closed for financial reasons in 2017.
One outspoken local opponent of the clinic, Ross Schriftman, expressed disappointment about the fire. Still he said everybody should oppose abortion and noted the goal isn't necessarily to make abortion illegal but “unthinkable."
“I don't have a uterus. But I do have a heart, a mind and a First Amendment. And I have every right to speak about how I feel about an issue,” said Schriftman, a member of the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation.
Little Walker said her abortion was both heartbreaking and beautiful.
At the Denver hospital, Little Walker and her husband, Ian, got to hold their daughter, whom they'd named Riana, after she died. They maintain her memory in a box with items including her ashes in heart-shaped container, prints of her tiny hands and feet and a baby blanket.
“I feel like it's Riana's legacy to share her story and help people understand that abortion is much bigger than what the propaganda would have you believe. It's much more complicated. It's very, very gray. And it can affect anybody,” Little Walker said.
“When you find yourself in a difficult position, you just want to have choices.”
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