Providers look to adapt as abortion outlawed

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CASPER — Wyoming’s sweeping abortion ban has taken effect, shuttering the state’s only abortion provider and forcing doctors to adapt while they await an emergency hearing on a lawsuit filed in Teton County last week. 

At the same time, the implementation of the new ban is driving abortion advocates to review their work as Wyoming lawmakers continue to make strides in targeting abortion in the state. 

Staff at the Women’s Health and Family Care clinic in Jackson, the only abortion provider in Wyoming, began calling patients and cancelling appointments on Monday morning, said Dr. Giovannina Anthony, a medical provider at the clinic. 

In all, the clinic called six women on Monday. Most of the patients were crying when they were informed that their appointments would have to be canceled in light of Wyoming’s new restrictions, Anthony said. 

“Of the six women contacted today, only one was very calm about the issue because she said she had resources to travel and would travel as needed,” she said Monday. “The other patients all did not have that or that’s a major hurdle.” 

The immediate impacts of the ban have not been isolated to patients. The emotions of patients and the inability to provide care have also affected providers, Anthony said. 

“My practice manager was just in tears this morning as she made these calls because the patients are devastated,” she said. 

Wyoming’s broad ban on abortion took effect on midnight Saturday after Gov. Mark Gordon let the Life is a Human Right Act become law without his signature. 

It prohibits abortion except in cases of rape and incest and under narrow medical circumstances, such as if the fetus is likely to die shortly after birth. 

The intent of the bill sponsored by Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, and number of other conservative lawmakers was to strengthen and expedite Wyoming’s abortion restrictions by addressing the constitutional questions raised by a legal challenge to last year’s trigger ban. 

Anthony and other providers, Wyoming residents and Chelsea’s Fund, an abortion fund based in Lander, challenged the trigger ban, arguing in their lawsuit that the restrictions violated the Wyoming Constitution, which guarantees the right of each person to make their own health care decisions. 

Ninth District Court Judge Melissa Owens temporarily blocked the trigger ban in July hours after it went into effect, and abortion up until fetal viability has remained legal in Wyoming as the lawsuit has made its way through the courts. 

The Life is a Human Right Act states that abortion “is not health care” and repeals last year’s trigger ban. 

Ahead of Gordon’s decision Friday, Anthony, other Wyoming health care providers and women, and Chelsea’s Fund again sued the state, this time to stop the Life is a Human Right Act ban from being implemented. 

Owens, who will again oversee court proceedings, scheduled an emergency hearing for 1 p.m. Wednesday in Teton County to hear their request to pause the enforcement of the latest abortion ban. 

As they await the hearing, Anthony and Women’s Health and Family Care have been directing the patients they turn away to Chelsea’s Fund and other resources if they’re seeking immediate help, she said. 

However, some patients have kept their appointments after Wednesday and Anthony is also keeping an open schedule in case Owens does issue a restraining order blocking the ban. 

“We want to be able to help these patients as soon as possible,” she said. 

While providers and patients maintain some optimism, the legal limbo they face can be difficult to handle amid the uncertain future of abortion in Wyoming. 

“If a woman is pregnant and doesn’t want to be pregnant, it’s a panicky, scary, extremely vulnerable situation that they’re in,” Anthony said. “Waiting around to see if the courts are going to make a decision that could completely change the most personal aspect of your life, that is really difficult to swallow. And it’s really hard for us.” 

While Wyoming waits, abortion providers in Colorado and Montana are preparing to aid women from the state. 

“Even before this decision, we were already seeing a substantial number of out-of-state patients from Wyoming coming to our Colorado health centers,” Fawn Bolak, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said in an email. 

Since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade last year, Colorado’s Planned Parenthood clinics have seen more than 800 women from Wyoming who have traveled to access abortion, Bolak said. 

“Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains will continue to be here providing safe, compassionate reproductive and sexual health care to anyone who walks through our doors, regardless of where they are from,” Bolak said. 

In a statement, Martha Fuller, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Montana, shared the same support for Wyoming women who cross state lines for abortion care. 

“At Planned Parenthood of Montana, we stand with our patients and providers against cruel attempts to ban abortion care and will continue to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services to the people of Wyoming forced to travel across state lines,” Fuller said. 

Wellspring Health Access is preparing to open a women’s health care and abortion center in Casper in April. The new ban and coming legal battle have not changed those plans, said Lauren Rankin, a spokesperson for Wellspring Health Access. The organization still plans to open its doors and provide both medication and surgical abortions for Wyoming women, Rankin said. 

“We at Wellspring believe in fighting for legal abortion in every state, in every community because every community deserves this care,” she said. “We have no intention of backing down from this fight now.” 

But while Wellspring Health Access and other providers remain headstrong, the same is less true for Pro-Choice Wyoming, an abortion-rights advocacy group. 

The Life is a Human Right Act is just one of the anti-abortion bills that Wyoming lawmakers have passed in recent years. On Friday, Gordon also signed into law a ban on medication abortion, which accounted for all 98 abortions in the state in 2021, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. 

With the wave of anti-abortion legislation, Sharon Breitweiser, the executive director of Pro-Choice Wyoming, said it was time that organization review its efforts. 

“It’s never been easy. We’ve had a lot of close calls. But this is the worst it’s been in recent memory,” she said. 

With the group’s advocacy gaining little traction in the Legislature, Breitweiser said the organization would look to reassess its strategy and tailor its efforts to better support abortion access in Wyoming. 

“We want to take advantage of these coming months where we don’t have elections to really beef up our outreach and our educational work with people so they know what’s going on,” she said.