Despite Wyoming’s Ban on Abortion, She Defied the Law and Established an Abortion Clinic.

In 2020, Julie Burkhart received an unexpected email from a philanthropist. The email proposed an intriguing idea – opening an abortion clinic in Wyoming. This suggestion seemed far-fetched considering Wyoming’s reputation as one of the most conservative states in the country, and the fact that it had strongly supported Donald Trump in two presidential elections. However, despite the odds, Burkhart decided to seriously consider the proposition.

After experiencing the challenges of running a clinic in a red state, she had reached a point of exhaustion. She yearned to leave Wichita and distance herself from everything it symbolized. However, she was aware that Wyoming, being even more conservative than Kansas, embraced a different kind of conservatism – one influenced by the Cowboy State’s values of self-reliance and limited government intervention. This meant that people in Wyoming were less inclined to regulate what individuals did behind closed doors.

She agreed to it.

Three months before Burkhart’s planned clinic opening in 2022, the Wyoming Legislature, influenced by a new Freedom Caucus, passed a trigger law alongside a dozen other states. This law would prohibit abortion immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Roe v. Wade decision.

After the court made its ruling, abortion providers in states with trigger bans relocated their clinics to safe havens like Illinois, Maryland, or Minnesota. However, Burkhart chose to stay on the front lines of the abortion wars and continued her work in Wyoming. As a result, she became the only person in America to open an abortion clinic in a state that has banned abortion.

In an interview during her 3 1/2 hour drive from her home near Denver to the clinic in Casper, she expressed her strong opposition to the idea of limiting facilities to safe states. She firmly believes that if we truly want to uphold our commitment to preserving rights in this country, we must be willing to venture into uncomfortable territories. “Conceding in certain areas goes against the very essence of our claims to support the rights of everyone,” she stated.

In her experiences within a Trump-voting state, she has not only faced resistance but also come across the intricate politics surrounding abortion in the post-Roe era.

Wyoming may be unique in many ways, with its small population of around 600,000 residents and its diverse landscape of mountains, high plains, and unique rock formations. However, when it comes to politics, the state is not so different from other red and purple states. The Republican party in Wyoming has become divided, with one faction known as the Freedom Caucus advocating for controversial measures such as book bans and abortion restrictions, while another faction aims to preserve the state’s more libertarian brand of conservatism.

Many residents have realized that their stance on banning abortion is more nuanced than they initially believed. Witnessing the repercussions of such a prohibition has made them acknowledge that there are circumstances where individuals may require access to abortion services, even if they personally would not choose it. Above all, they firmly believe that the government should not have the authority to make decisions in this matter.

“People are inclined to make decisions based on what they believe is best for them, especially when it comes to personal matters like health. They are willing to go against the law if they feel it is the right course of action,” stated Ogden Driskill, the president of the state Senate.

Driskill, a sixth-generation rancher residing near the imposing Devils Tower, identifies himself as pro-life. However, he does not support the prohibition of abortion. He draws a parallel between this stance and his use of ivermectin, a drug primarily employed to deworm horses, in an attempt to protect himself from COVID. Despite the warnings highlighting its inefficacy and potential risks, Driskill defends his decision. According to him, the majority of Wyoming residents share his perspective.

According to the speaker, the question revolves around the extent to which individuals identify as pro-life. He suggests that if abortion is being used as a means of birth control, many individuals would likely disagree. However, if there is a valid reason behind the decision, most people would be open to hearing and understanding that reason.

Jeanette Ward, a state representative who relocated to Casper in 2021 to escape what she deemed as the “tyranny” of mask mandates in Illinois during the COVID pandemic, contends that Wyoming remains firmly in support of the pro-life movement.

She added that although a vocal minority may argue otherwise, it is important to note that the abortion ban was passed with a strong majority in the Legislature and was subsequently signed by the governor.

Burkhart operates within a constantly changing landscape. Her clinic, currently sustained by a judge’s injunction, awaits a trial in a lawsuit filed by her clinic and other advocates of abortion rights against the restrictive bans. According to Burkhart, by establishing a presence in a sparsely populated state, even if it is a modest one, she aims to maintain an ongoing dialogue about the importance of abortion rights.

“I believe it has been repeatedly proven that change cannot be achieved without taking risks,” she stated. “We have a responsibility to question these laws and push for change. Even if the clinic can only remain open for a short period of time – be it four, twelve, twenty-four, or thirty-six months – the crucial question is how many individuals can we assist in the meantime?”

“The Summers of Mercy”

The Summers of Mercy is a historical event that took place in Wichita, Kansas in the late 1980s. It was a period of intense conflict between pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The event was named after Operation Rescue’s plan to shut down abortion clinics during the summers.

During this time, thousands of activists from both sides of the abortion debate descended upon Wichita. The city became a battleground for competing ideologies, with protesters engaging in demonstrations, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience. The clash between the two groups was fueled by passionate beliefs and a deep-seated desire to protect their respective causes.

The Summers of Mercy marked a significant turning point in the fight for reproductive rights. It drew national attention to the abortion debate and highlighted the deep divisions within American society. The event also led to increased activism on both sides, as supporters of abortion rights and opponents of abortion sought to advance their agendas.

The Summers of Mercy serves as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for reproductive freedom and the deeply held convictions that drive individuals to take a stand. It remains a pivotal moment in the history of the abortion debate, showcasing the power of grassroots activism and the lasting impact of organized resistance.

She casually dismisses any discussion about the risks of her work, stating, “This is the path I have chosen for myself, or perhaps, the path that has chosen me.”

Growing up in Wichita, Burkhart’s perspective on the contentious issue of abortion was influenced by a significant event that had a lasting impact on the nation’s ongoing struggle.

After spending her early years on a farm in Oklahoma, she returned to her hometown. It was during her summer break from graduate school in 1991 when she found herself working at the Wichita Women’s Center, answering phones and assisting with lab tasks. Little did she know that the city was about to be inundated with anti-abortion demonstrators who had dubbed it the Summer of Mercy.

For six weeks, thousands of protesters gathered outside the city’s three clinics, creating a blockade and causing chaos on the sidewalks. They went to extreme measures, such as throwing themselves in front of cars and handcuffing themselves to fences, all while passionately reciting verses from Scripture. Within the clinic where she was employed, Burkhart witnessed a particularly bold act as a man secured himself to the entrance handles using a bicycle U-Lock.

The city of Wichita had turned into the epicenter of the nationwide abortion debate, leaving a lasting impact on her. “Witnessing the self-righteousness, violence, intimidation, and the disrespect towards the women seeking care at the clinic,” she expressed, “it’s hard to comprehend how someone can claim to love and care for others while simultaneously spewing hatred.”

In 2001, she joined a Planned Parenthood clinic as the community affairs director amidst the resurgence of anti-abortion protesters in Wichita. This coincided with the 10th anniversary revival of the Summer of Mercy. During meetings focused on security, she crossed paths with Tiller and soon after, he urged her to join him in establishing a new political action committee.

Dr. Tiller, a Republican and former Navy flight surgeon, inherited his father’s primary care practice in the 1970s. It was only when women started seeking abortions from him that he discovered his father had been providing the procedure prior to it being legalized nationwide by Roe v. Wade.

Burkhart initially shared that she was deeply impressed by his fearless nature in the face of death threats and his dry sense of humor, which some people misunderstood as being abrupt. However, despite these differences, they had a strong connection. She didn’t mind when he would call her at 1 in the morning, as she was also awake working at that time.

“We both recognized the inherent risks involved in this line of work. It requires us to step out of our comfort zones and think innovatively. At times, we need to make tough, arduous choices that push us beyond our limits.”

Over the next eight years, she assumed the role of representing his clinic in state politics. She admired his approach in dealing with the Legislature, as he firmly opposed any attempts to implement seemingly harmless regulations on abortion providers. For instance, he resisted the idea of mandating larger procedure rooms for abortion facilities compared to other surgical practices, as he believed such laws would only pave the way for opponents of abortion to advocate for further restrictions.

According to Burkhart, Tiller’s critics labeled his clinic as a “baby killing factory.” However, Burkhart saw a profound dedication in him. “I greatly admired how he was devoted to his work and to others,” Burkhart expressed. “What stood out to me was his belief that everyone deserves forgiveness and a chance for redemption, as it is an integral part of life.”

In a display of both grief and determination, Burkhart, described as a “maniacal mess,” reached out to Tiller’s widow a month later. Armed with a PowerPoint presentation, she sought the widow’s approval to reopen the clinic. In 2013, the clinic was indeed reopened under the name “Trust Women,” which pays homage to a slogan Tiller proudly displayed on a political button.

In 2016, Trust Women achieved enough success that it opened another location in Oklahoma. This marked a significant milestone as it became the first new abortion clinic to be licensed in the state in 40 years.

The Code of the West was a set of unwritten rules that governed the behavior and values of the people living in the American West during the late 19th century. These rules were not set in stone, but rather, were a reflection of the morals and principles that guided the pioneers and settlers in their daily lives. The code emphasized self-reliance, fairness, and respect for others. It encouraged individuals to be honest, hardworking, and to treat others with kindness and respect. The Code of the West also placed a strong emphasis on personal freedom and individual rights. It promoted the idea that every person had the right to live their life as they saw fit, as long as they did not infringe upon the rights of others.

In 2020, Christine Lichtenfels, a lawyer and the director of Chelsea’s Fund, a nonprofit assisting women seeking abortions, received a call from Wyoming. The state had only one clinic located in Jackson, which offered medication abortion only up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. Despite serving nearly 100 people that year, almost 400 Wyoming residents had to travel to Colorado for abortions. The harsh Wyoming winters compounded the challenge, as snow would often close roads for up to six months, making travel even more difficult.

Lichtenfels suggested that the new clinic be located in Casper, which is the central hub for the state’s population. Moreover, Casper is conveniently situated near highways that link to four states that have implemented trigger bans.

Wyoming, known as the “Equality State,” holds a proud history of being at the forefront of women’s rights. It was the first state to grant women the right to vote and run for office, and even elected the first woman governor. In 1994, Wyoming voters decisively rejected a ballot measure that aimed to ban abortion by establishing fetal personhood. This rejection demonstrated the state’s commitment to individual freedoms and personal choices. In line with its libertarian values, Wyoming’s Legislature adopted the “Code of the West” in 2010, inspired by the spirit of cowboys. This code includes ten commandments, such as “talk less, say more” and “remember that some things are not for sale,” embodying the state’s belief in simplicity and the preservation of certain values that should not be compromised.

In an interview, Lichtenfels emphasized the importance of actions that truly made a difference, like helping out in tough situations such as bucking a bale of hay or rescuing someone during a blizzard. It didn’t matter what one did in the privacy of their own home; what truly mattered was the impact they had on others.

Burkhart found the state’s voters’ approval of a constitutional amendment in 2012 to be particularly intriguing. The amendment stated that adults possess the right to make their own health care decisions. While Republicans in the Legislature aimed to undermine Obamacare with this amendment, Driskill, the state Senate president, acknowledged that it would also be interpreted as a safeguard for abortion rights.

After Tiller’s death, Burkhart took the initiative to educate herself about Wyoming’s abortion laws. She wanted to assist the doctors who had worked at his clinic in finding secure locations to continue their practice. Initially, she anticipated a significant deterioration of the situation in Wyoming, but to her surprise, she discovered that not much had actually changed.

In 2010, Republican control swept across legislatures throughout the country, resulting in a surge of abortion restrictions being passed. Wyoming, however, only implemented a single requirement, which mandated women considering abortion to undergo ultrasounds. While this restriction may seem relatively inconsequential, it still reflected the broader trend of tightening regulations on abortion.

Burkhart decided it was time to bid farewell to Kansas. A new wave of activists, particularly from the younger generation, was advocating for a more comprehensive approach to abortion rights, encompassing the concept of reproductive justice. This notion, pioneered by Black women in the South, resonated with Trust Women and other national reproductive rights organizations. They sought to embrace new leadership that represented the diverse voices within this evolving movement. However, Burkhart faced criticism from certain staff members who believed she had become overly controlling and stubborn in sticking to her own methods.

“I honestly feel like I stayed in Wichita for too long,” she admitted. “I didn’t really have many friends there.” She quickly clarified that it was a slight exaggeration. Nevertheless, Wichita had started to feel overwhelming, as she explained, “It seemed like negativity was always lingering around. There were constant reminders of it.”

In early 2022, Lichtenfels purchased a single-story former medical building located just half a mile away from the charming historic center of Casper. Across the street, there is a coffee bar adorned with stickers on tables, encouraging customers to “Read Banned Books,” while a towering illuminated marquee graces a 105-year-old ranch outfitters store nearby.

In June of that year, just as the Supreme Court was expected to rule on Roe, Burkhart was all set to see the first patients at the clinic he called Wellspring Health Access.

“I found it intriguing to begin a new abortion clinic during this time,” she expressed.

If Roe is overturned, the decision on how to regulate abortion would be left to the individual states. Currently, Wyoming allows the procedure until viability, which is typically around 24 weeks of pregnancy. This aligns with the laws in some of the more liberal states.

‘My God, This Is Serious.’

The sense of urgency was palpable as the gravity of the situation sunk in. It was a moment that demanded our full attention and immediate action.

The COVID pandemic attracted many conservatives, such as Ward, to Wyoming’s live-and-let-live spirit, as they sought refuge from mask and vaccine mandates. In the Legislature, known for its short sessions lasting 20 or 40 days depending on the year, the influential Freedom Caucus grew from five members in 2017 to 26 members in 2023. What used to be sessions focused on passing a budget now turned into heated debates over bills introduced by new members, aiming to ban critical race theory in education and prevent transgender girls from participating in girls’ athletic events.

In March 2022, the caucus took the lead in advocating for the implementation of the trigger law that bans abortion. Burkhart expressed her thoughts, saying, “I believed that we would simply file a lawsuit against the state.”

Much to her surprise, the staff she had hired were more than willing to stay with her. Despite being a Trump voter, her contractor put in additional hours to rebuild the clinic, although he politely declined to display his sign out front.

In July 2022, Burkhart, Lichtenfels, and other abortion rights advocates filed a lawsuit in Wyoming to challenge the trigger ban. They argued that the ban infringed upon the state constitutional right that grants adults the freedom to make their own healthcare decisions. A judge granted a temporary injunction on the law, stating that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their case.

In March 2023, the Legislature took action by passing a new law that amended the constitution, stating that abortion is not considered health care. Additionally, another law was enacted to explicitly prohibit medication abortion. However, the implementation of these laws was once again halted by the judge.

Ward, who was part of the group, criticized the state’s Republican governor, whom she believes is not truly pro-life. She held him responsible for appointing a judge with radical views, who disregarded the Legislature and the will of the people by suspending the abortion ban.

During her address to the council, she expressed her observation with a touch of irony. She highlighted the apparent disparity in the court’s prioritization of women’s so-called medical freedom to terminate pregnancies, while neglecting to protect the rights of individuals during the mandatory vaccination campaigns or the loss of jobs amidst the pandemic.

An additional crisis pregnancy center, operated by individuals who oppose abortion, recently established a second facility near the Wellspring clinic in Casper. As part of their efforts, they dispatched “sidewalk advocates” to the alley behind the clinic, who approached women and provided roses, gift bags, and the opportunity for free ultrasounds, with the intention of persuading them to choose an alternative option.

According to Burkhart, she has found it easier to not take the opposition personally. This could be because she has made the decision not to live in Casper. However, this choice does come with its own set of stresses. For instance, the drive to the clinic from her home in Colorado can take over three hours, depending on how fast she drives.

She had planned to attend the clinic’s patient day once a week to observe every consultation. The abortion providers, who come from out of state, also faced difficulties in finding local, qualified, and dedicated nursing and administrative staff, according to Burkhart.

In the administrative office of Wellspring, she furrowed her brow as she examined the medical records, concerned that the staff might not fully grasp the potential consequences if the paperwork was not completed correctly. With a marker in hand, she focused on mapping out the patient flow from the waiting room to treatment and the recovery room on the whiteboard, striving to ensure clarity and efficiency.

The staff members referred to their work as mission work.

“I became a nurse because I wanted to support these girls during their difficult moments,” said Brittany Brown, reflecting on her passion for helping others. Brown, who was raised in the conservative region of Bible Belt Kansas, gained a deeper understanding of the challenges women can encounter after becoming a single mother when her husband left. It was through a Facebook article that she discovered the clinic and decided to pursue a position there. Having experienced burnout from her previous role in a corporate-owned clinic amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown was determined to find a more fulfilling and meaningful way to contribute to society.”

Inside the recovery room, she and Burkhart attended to Jade, a 22-year-old college student who referred to the clinic as her “saving grace.” Jade and her partner made a four-hour drive from Montana, as the clinics near their home were too overwhelmed to accommodate them. Jade explained that these clinics either ignored her calls or provided her with an appointment two months in the future.

Growing up in and out of foster care, Jane Doe’s parents, who were teenage immigrants, faced numerous challenges. However, these difficult experiences shaped her determination to ensure that no one else would have to endure the same hardships. She firmly stated, “I don’t ever want to subject another human being to what I had to go through as a child.”

Jade entered the clinic when she was 11 weeks pregnant and left a few hours later with a warm hug from a nurse and a paper bag that held recovery instructions and birth control. The staff member had written on the bag, “Make the most of every moment in life!”

‘It Was Overwhelming’

The experience was simply too much to handle.

Burkhart faced mounting frustrations during the fall season. She anxiously awaited reimbursements from insurance companies and abortion funds, grappling with budget concerns and the challenge of retaining her staff. Burkhart made the difficult decision to let go of some individuals, suspecting them to be “antis.” Meanwhile, other employees grew increasingly frustrated with Burkhart’s perceived disorganization and unattainable expectations, ultimately leading them to quit.

In late September, Burkhart made the trip to Cheyenne in order to personally witness the sentencing of the 22-year-old woman who had pleaded guilty to setting the clinic on fire. Her main intention was to express her gratitude towards law enforcement for their efforts in bringing the culprit to justice. According to Burkhart, it is not often that individuals responsible for such acts are apprehended.

She added, “This is also dedicated to Dr. Tiller. The bomber was never apprehended, nor was the person responsible for drilling a hole in the roof and flooding the clinic.”

Her visits to Wyoming became less frequent, and just before Thanksgiving, Burkhart had a heated outburst during a videoconference, where she even threatened to quit, according to staff members.

In late January, she informed the staff that she would be stepping down from her position as the clinic’s leader. However, she reassured them that she would still be overseeing Wellspring’s board.

In a phone interview, Burkhart expressed her sentiments about her demanding job, stating, “This work is relentless, and I’m just trying to find some balance in my life here.” Despite facing local opposition, she admitted that it wasn’t the most hostile environment she had encountered in her line of work, even considering the incident of arson.

She is also part owner of a clinic in Illinois and has aspirations to open more in the future. She describes herself as someone who thrives in startup environments.

“It became overwhelming,” she expressed. “What truly excites me is the process of creating and constructing. I derive immense satisfaction from starting from scratch and witnessing our patients walk through our doors, breathing life into what we have built.”

Recruiting Burkhart was a decision made by Lichtenfels, who acknowledged the impact the arson had on her. She had the added responsibility of ensuring that donors and staff members remained committed, despite the uncertainty surrounding the identity of the culprit and their potential future actions.

According to Lichtenfels, she was well aware of the risks involved, especially considering her previous encounter with the murder of Dr. Tiller. However, she emphasizes that regardless of this knowledge, the experience of facing harassment and threats is both emotionally and physically exhausting.

The clinic in Casper will be managed by Brown, a nurse, with oversight from a new executive director residing in Arkansas. This executive director was previously a colleague of Burkhart’s from Trust Women in Wichita. Burkhart expressed her confidence in the future of the clinic under their leadership, stating, “We have put in a tremendous amount of effort to ensure that things do not unravel.”

The closure of the medication abortion clinic in Jackson last December, citing high rent and other expenses, has led to an increased demand in the state. As a result, Wellspring now stands as the sole abortion clinic in Wyoming, facing the challenge of meeting the growing needs. According to data from the Wyoming Department of Health, the number of abortions in the state has doubled between 2021 and 2022.

Burkhart’s clinic is currently involved in the ongoing lawsuits that challenge Wyoming’s abortion law. A trial has been scheduled for April, but in December, both the state and the abortion rights providers appeared in court to request an expedited judgment. The judge has the authority to deliver a ruling at any moment.

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