CASPER — An abortion clinic is set to open in Casper this summer. The clinic would be the only facility to offer surgical abortions in Wyoming, and opponents have begun to organize against it.
Surgical abortions can end a pregnancy further in its term than abortions by medication. A Jackson doctor is currently the only provider of medical abortions in Wyoming.
The Casper clinic’s Second Street facility is still under construction, but its founder says it should be staffed and ready to open by the summer if all goes according to plan. It’s operated by Circle of Hope, a national health care nonprofit with a mission of providing reproductive care to underserved, rural areas.
In addition to performing abortions, the clinic plans to offer family planning, OB/GYN and gender-affirming services.
Casper will be the company’s first location, but founder Julie Burkhart said the organization is planning on expanding across the country. The nonprofit lists a Washington, D.C. address on its website but registered the Casper address with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office earlier this year.
“Casper is centrally located, so this clinic will be as accessible as possible to the majority of Wyomingites ... including people in the rural parts of the state,” Burkhart said. It’s also positioned to be accessible to people in nearby areas of South Dakota and Nebraska, she said.
Abortion is a divisive topic in Wyoming. In this most recent legislative session, lawmakers passed three abortion-related bills through the committee stage, one of which became law. That bill would ban abortion in the state if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.
The clinic is working with a community advisory board of Wyoming residents from local churches, tribes and health care.
“There is a robust, diverse community of people in Wyoming who believe that people should be able access the health care they need, including abortion,” said Rev. Leslie Kee of Casper’s Unitarian Universalist Church, who sits on the committee. “Opening this clinic is essential for those across our state who currently find that care is out of reach, including people living in rural areas, members of Native tribes, and those with low incomes.”
But others in Casper and around the state oppose the clinic’s opening.
“I don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Michelle St. Louis, an anti-abortion Casper resident. “We all know teenagers who chose to go through with their pregnancy; it’s not their first inclination to get an abortion. Most women don’t want to do that.”
Several local residents are planning a prayer event outside the facility on April 21, and a “life chain” demonstration the following Sunday.
A larger coalition from across Wyoming is coordinating a trip to Casper for the clinic’s anticipated opening in June, Park County Right to Life President Tim Lasseter said.
The groups are planning a peaceful protest for the opening, Lasseter said, reaching out to churches and anti-abortion groups around the state.
“We expect there to be a large turnout,” he said. “We’re not looking for confrontation, we’re just looking to let people know we disagree.”
Marti Halverson, president of Right to Life Wyoming, said the statewide group is planning “multiple tracks” of opposition to the clinic.
“The organization has some money we’re willing to put behind the effort,” she said Thursday, but declined to specify what members were planning. “You have 53 life-friendly legislators, a governor who says he’s pro-life,” Halverson said. “This should be shut down tomorrow.”
Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Burns, opposes abortion and said the practice shouldn’t be used as birth control.
Bouchard himself was adopted as a baby, and said that since Americans are leaving the country to adopt children, there should be no reason to abort a fetus that could be adopted in the U.S.
Burkhart says she’s no stranger to opposition — she’s operated reproductive health clinics in Washington, Oklahoma and Kansas. Her former boss, nationally known abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, was murdered in 2009 at his Wichita church.
“We do recognize that there are people in Wyoming who are opposed to what we’re doing, including many in the state legislature,” Burkhart said. “We hope that those who oppose our work will do so peacefully and without harassing or intimidating people seeking or providing reproductive health care.”
Surgical abortions can be performed later in a pregnancy than medical ones, which are limited to those who have been pregnant for 10 or fewer weeks.
Until recently, one doctor in Jackson did provide surgical abortions — though state health department statistics from recent years show very few were actually performed. But after the doctor sold his clinic to St. John’s Health in 2020 and resigned as a hospital contractor in October, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reported that he’s barred from practicing there by a non-compete clause in the sale.
Another Jackson-based doctor is now the state’s sole abortion provider, though her office only offers medical abortions.
“Because of legal restrictions and other barriers to abortion access, people sometimes need access to abortion care after that (10-week) period,” Burkhart said.
Chelsea’s Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance to Wyomingites seeking abortions, has assisted 63 people so far in 2022.
Its money helps cover the cost of the abortion medication, which starts at $350 for a mail-in dose.
Nurse Cristina Gonzalez, who works with the fund, said the organization doesn’t turn away anyone who needs help.
“(The Casper clinic) would increase access because it’s providing options to individuals in the state, not overwhelming one resource,” Gonzalez said. “Now, if you’re outside that 10-week time frame, you’re looking at having to go to Colorado.”
A Wyoming law passed in 2019 prohibits all abortions after viability, the point when a fetus could survive outside the womb.
According to the health department, 91 abortions were performed by Wyoming providers in 2020 — the first full year the state required providers to report statistics. One of those was reported as a surgical dilation procedure. Eighty-eight were medical, and the other two did not specify the method.
Among those who received abortions in 2020, 48 (or 53 percent) were already mothers to at least one child. Four had four or more children.
Every abortion during that year was performed before 10 weeks, though one did not report. More than half were performed before reaching six weeks of pregnancy. Gonzalez said most of the people Chelsea’s Fund helps are single working mothers who already have children.