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Wyoming abortion clinic opens despite arson, legal obstacles

Wyoming Abortion Clinic with yellow caution tape surrounding it.
Mead Gruver/AP
/
AP
The fire-damaged Wellspring Health Access clinic is cordoned by tape on May 25, 2022, in in Casper, Wyo. Wyoming’s first full-service abortion clinic in years defiantly opened Thursday, April, 20, 2023, nearly one year after an arson attack ravaged it and despite looming laws that could shut it down with some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the U.S.

Wyoming's first full-service abortion clinic in years defiantly opened Thursday nearly one year after an arson attack ravaged it and despite looming laws that could shut it down with some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the U.S.

The clinic in a small stucco building on a busy street in Wyoming's second-biggest city of Casper is less than a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Interstate 25, where the occasional anti-abortion billboard stands against the open, sparsely populated landscape.

Last May, a few weeks before the clinic was set to open, a fire tore through the building, leaving soot-stained, smashed windows and police tape to mark the clinic site in downtown Casper. A woman who has since been arrested had broken a window, filled aluminum pans with gasoline and set it ablaze, authorities say. She told told investigators that she opposes abortion and was experiencing anxiety over the facility opening.

With its fire damage repaired, the Wellspring Health Access clinic will be able to provide both abortion-pill and surgical abortions — at least for now. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule Friday on federal approval that's been disputed for one of two drugs used in pill abortions. Wyoming last month became the first state to pass an explicit ban on abortion pills, which have become the predominant choice for abortion in the U.S. in recent years.

Until now, only one other clinic in Wyoming — a women's health center in Jackson, some 250 miles (400 kilometers) away — has provided medication abortions. Surgical abortions haven't been available in a dedicated Wyoming clinic in at least a decade, according to Wellspring.

Although Wyoming has had just one clinic providing abortions for at least a decade, access never fully ended. There were at least 88 medication abortions reported by state medical professionals in 2020; and 98 medication abortions were reported in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Wyoming Department of Health.

Still, that's not the whole picture of abortion in Wyoming. Hundreds of women travel each year to Colorado and other states for abortions and the numbers don't include medication abortions conducted at home without medical supervision.

Wellspring Health Access will begin taking appointments for services not widely available to Wyoming women in years. The clinic opened immediately after receiving a city occupancy permit. Medical procedures are set to begin after a doctor arrives at the clinic next week, according to Wellspring.

"It's been a long journey, filled with obstacles and challenges, but we at Wellspring Health Access refused to give up because we believe that Wyomingites deserve access to abortion care," Wellspring President Julie Burkhart said in a statement.

Last year's fire caused almost $300,000 in damage to the building as it was being renovated, delaying the clinic's opening by about 10 months.

For months, police had no suspects. Then in March, an anonymous donor increased the reward for information in the case from $5,000 to $15,000, leading to several tips.

Within weeks they arrested Lorna Roxanne Green, a 22-year-old college student who allegedly told a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent that the clinic was giving her anxiety and nightmares, so she decided to burn it. Charged with arson, Green has been released from jail while her case proceeds.

Wellspring has meanwhile faced multiple other obstacles.

The clinic was first set to open as the U.S. Supreme Court was preparing to overturn Roe v. Wade, triggering a new state abortion ban that took effect July 27. Within hours that day, Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens blocked the ban pending a lawsuit filed by four women, including two obstetricians and two nonprofits — Wellspring among them.

The same women and nonprofits are now suing over two new state abortion laws — a first-in-the-nation abortion pill ban and an overall abortion ban the state Legislature passed this winter to sidestep legal issues arising from the earlier law. The overall ban would prohibit abortion at all stages of pregnancy except in cases of rape or incest that are reported to police, or to save a woman's life.

As before, three days after the new ban took effect March 19, Owens suspended it, ruling that the law may still violate a state constitutional amendment saying residents have the right to make their own health care decisions. Owens didn't rule on the pill ban but it doesn't take effect until July 1.