[UPDATE: A fire damaged the Wellspring Health Access clinic in Casper, Wyoming, early on May 25. Police suspect the fire was arson. The project’s leader told KHN the damage would be repaired and the clinic would still open.]
CASPER, Wyo. — A modest, tan building sandwiched between a gas station and a small apartment house near this Western city’s downtown has become an unexpected focal point of America’s abortion debate, just weeks before Wyoming could outlaw the procedure.
Inside, a nonprofit is renovating the space into a clinic that, beginning in June, would be the only one in Wyoming to provide procedural abortions. The Casper clinic also would become the closest option for people in what the nonprofit’s founders describe as an “abortion desert,” extending into western Nebraska and South Dakota.
Outside, on a recent Thursday, more than 100 abortion opponents gathered for a prayer vigil on the sidewalk along a busy five-lane street. A smaller group of vocal abortion rights advocates assembled nearby.
The protest groups congregate weekly as work to open the clinic continues, despite an imminent U.S. Supreme Court decision expected to reverse constitutional protections for abortion rights provided by the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade. A recently passed “trigger law” in Wyoming would take effect days after such a ruling, banning most abortions in the state.
Teens, young adults, parents with small children, and seniors silently held signs emblazoned with Bible verses or slogans, such as “Abortion hurts women,” during the recent vigil.
One man walked through the crowd yelling anti-religious slogans, while a group of teens took a less confrontational approach to counter the vigil’s message by chanting “My body, my choice.”
Several drivers passing by honked in support of the anti-abortion group or yelled expletives and, “It’s my body!”
The opposing groups of demonstrators don’t see eye to eye on much, but they seemed to agree on one thing: They’re surprised the clinic is opening in Wyoming, an overwhelmingly Republican state where 70% of voters supported Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election — the highest percentage of any state.
“I never thought I would see an abortion clinic come to Wyoming, let alone Casper, just because it is more conservative,” 39-year-old Robin Holmes said during the vigil.
Holmes wore a custom T-shirt and held a homemade poster, both saying “Unborn Lives Matter.” She said her daughter became pregnant in her teens but decided against abortion and is now raising the child.
Rikki Hayes, who supports the new clinic, found a piece of cardboard on her way to the vigil and held it up after writing “Mind your own business!”
“I didn’t think in a million years that we, in Casper, would ever get one. We’re in Wyoming,” said Hayes, a 21-year-old coffee shop manager.
The idea to open a clinic in Casper came from Wyoming activist Christine Lichtenfels. She shared her suggestion with Julie Burkhart, a Colorado resident and veteran of the national abortion rights movement
The only other Wyoming clinic offering abortions is in Jackson, a five-hour drive west of Casper and near the Idaho border. It offers only medication abortions up to 10 weeks of gestation.
“I just thought, ‘Gosh, why can’t we get something in Casper?’ It’s the perfect location, pretty much in the center,” Lichtenfels said.
Burkhart agreed and founded the nonprofit Wellspring Health Access in May 2021 to open the clinic and plan other projects aimed at expanding access to abortion. Lichtenfels is an attorney and board member of Chelsea’s Fund, a nonprofit that provides financial assistance for Wyoming residents seeking abortions. She said taking a day or more to travel to an appointment creates logistical and financial burdens for many people.
“You have a job, maybe you’ve got kids, so you’ve got to find kid care,” Lichtenfels said. “Maybe you don’t have a great car, maybe you don’t have a car. Or maybe the roads are closed.”
Casper, with a population of about 59,000, is a three- or four-hour drive north or south from the nearest clinics — one in Billings, Montana, and another in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s also relatively close to regions of neighboring states without abortion services.
Some people in western South Dakota seeking abortions now drive five hours to clinics in Montana or Colorado. If they stay within South Dakota, they must travel four hours to Sioux Falls, where they face a three-day waiting period.
When organizers began planning the clinic, Wyoming had fewer abortion restrictions than many other Republican-controlled states.
Wyoming allows abortion up to viability (about 24 weeks) and has no ban on telemedicine abortions. It has no mandated waiting period, doesn’t require doctors to read specific information to patients, and doesn’t require patients to view an ultrasound. Still, the state remained largely devoid of abortion services.
Then, in March, Wyoming became the 13th state to pass a “trigger law.” The law would make abortions illegal five days after Roe v. Wade is overturned, with exceptions in cases of pregnancies involving rape, incest, or risk to the mother’s life.
Similar laws are on the books in Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah. Policy watchers expect Montana and Nebraska lawmakers also will pursue abortion bans. That means many people from this region would need to drive or fly to other states for abortion services if Roe v. Wade is overturned.
No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides, the public debate will continue in Wyoming, both sides say.
Burkhart said legal challenges could slow Wyoming’s trigger law from taking effect. Even if the state outlaws abortion, she hopes the clinic will stay open to offer its other services, such as gynecology, testing for sexually transmitted infections, family planning, and gender-affirming care for LGBTQ+ patients.
She also expects Wellspring Health Access will explore ways to help people in states with abortion bans find services in neighboring states, including opening clinics near state borders or bringing mobile clinics or telemedicine services to those areas.
Burkhart said it may also be possible to bring mobile clinics into states with abortion bans, to screen, prep, and enroll people for out-of-state appointments.
Local anti-abortion activists say that even if Wyoming bans abortion, their campaign won’t end. Bob Brechtel is a Republican former state legislator who helps organize the weekly prayer vigils outside the Casper clinic.
“Rule of law is important, but what’s more important is that we do have people who are accepting and understanding of our purpose to defend human life at all stages,” he said.