Wyoming Prohibited Abortion. Still, she opened an abortion clinic

In 2020, a philanthropist reached out to Julie Burkhart with an intriguing proposal: opening an abortion clinic in Wyoming, a state known for its conservative values and strong support for Donald Trump. Despite the state’s reputation, the idea wasn’t entirely out of the question. Wyoming had twice delivered Trump his largest victory margin, making it an unexpected but potentially impactful location for such a venture.

After enduring the challenges of running a clinic in a conservative state, she had grown tired and sought to leave Wichita and its associated burdens behind. However, she was aware that Wyoming, being even more conservative than Kansas, embraced a Cowboy State conservatism. This ideology was influenced by values of self-reliance and limited government intervention, with less focus on regulating personal affairs conducted behind closed doors.

She enthusiastically agreed to it.

In 2022, just three months before Burkhart was ready to open her clinic, the Wyoming Legislature, influenced by a new Freedom Caucus, joined several other states in enacting a trigger law. This law would prohibit abortion immediately if the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade.

After the court’s ruling, abortion providers in states with trigger bans relocated their clinics to safe havens in Illinois, Maryland, or Minnesota. However, Burkhart chose to remain on the front lines of the abortion wars and continued her work in Wyoming. As a result, she became the sole individual in America to open an abortion clinic in a state where abortion is banned.

“I completely disagree with the idea of only providing facilities in safe states because if we truly want to protect everyone’s rights in this country, we must be willing to venture into these challenging territories,” she stated during an interview while driving from her residence near Denver to the clinic in Casper. “By conceding certain areas, we would be failing to live up to our own words and the principles we claim to uphold in supporting the rights of every individual.”

She hasn’t just faced opposition in a state that voted for Trump; she has come face to face with the intricate politics surrounding abortion in the aftermath of Roe.

In spite of its unique characteristics, such as its sparse population and diverse geographical features, Wyoming’s political landscape bears similarities to other red and purple states. The Republican party in Wyoming has experienced a division, with the Freedom Caucus advocating for restrictions on books and abortion, while another faction seeks to uphold the state’s libertarian brand of conservatism.

Residents in this region have gained a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding the abortion issue as they witness the repercussions of its ban. Many have come to realize that their stance on the matter is not as black and white as they once thought. While they personally may not opt for an abortion, they empathize with those in difficult circumstances who require this option. Above all, they strongly believe that the government should not have the authority to make such decisions.

“People are inclined to make decisions based on what they believe is best for themselves, especially when it concerns deeply personal matters like health. They will go to great lengths to do what they think is right, even if it means breaking the law,” stated Ogden Driskill, the president of the state Senate.

Driskill, a sixth-generation rancher residing near the imposing Devils Tower, identifies as pro-life but stands against the prohibition of abortion. Similar to his stance on using ivermectin, a deworming drug for horses, to combat COVID, he believes that it is essential to exercise personal choice. Despite the widespread warnings about its ineffectiveness and potential risks, Driskill maintains that his fellow Wyomingites share a similar perspective.

He said, “The question is what level of pro-life are you at? If you’re using abortion as a form of birth control, many people would likely say no. However, if there is a valid reason, most individuals would be open to listening and understanding the circumstances.”

Jeanette Ward, a state representative who relocated to Casper in 2021 to escape what she deemed as the oppressive nature of mask mandates in Illinois during the COVID pandemic, emphasized that Wyoming maintains a predominantly pro-life stance.

“A loud minority may try to suggest otherwise,” she asserted, “but it is important to note that the abortion ban was passed with strong support from the Legislature and was subsequently signed by the governor.”

Burkhart operates within a constantly changing landscape. Her clinic continues to operate thanks to a judge’s injunction, while awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by her clinic and other advocates of abortion rights against the bans. She believes that even maintaining a small presence in a state with a sparse population is crucial in order to keep the discussion surrounding abortion rights ongoing.

“I believe it has been repeatedly demonstrated that change cannot be achieved without taking risks, don’t you think?” she asserted. “We have a responsibility to question these laws. Even if the clinic can only operate for a limited period of time – be it four, twelve, twenty-four, or thirty-six months – the important question is how many people can we assist in the meantime?”

The Summers of Mercy were a tumultuous time for the LGBTQ+ community. During this period, there was a surge in anti-gay activism and protests across the country. The name “Summers of Mercy” was coined because many of these protests occurred during the summer months.

One of the most notable events of the Summers of Mercy was the protest organized by the anti-gay group, Operation Rescue, in Wichita, Kansas in 1991. Thousands of protesters descended upon the city to rally against abortion and homosexuality. This protest sparked a series of clashes between the protesters and counter-protesters, leading to numerous arrests and injuries.

The Summers of Mercy also saw a rise in anti-gay legislation and policies. In 1993, the state of Colorado passed Amendment 2, which prohibited any city, town, or county in the state from passing laws protecting gay or lesbian individuals from discrimination. This amendment was later struck down by the Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans.

Despite the challenges faced during the Summers of Mercy, the LGBTQ+ community and their allies fought back. Activists organized counter-protests, advocacy campaigns, and legal challenges to combat the anti-gay rhetoric and discrimination. These efforts helped pave the way for progress in LGBTQ+ rights in the years to come.

The Summers of Mercy serve as a reminder of the ongoing struggle for equality and acceptance faced by the LGBTQ+ community. They highlight the importance of standing up against discrimination and fighting for the rights of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

She casually dismisses any talk about the risks of her work, saying, “I’ve chosen this path for my life, or perhaps life has chosen it for me.”

A defining event in the long fight over abortion in the United States shaped Burkhart’s perspective while growing up in Wichita.

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Growing up in Wichita, Kansas, she had spent her formative years on a farm in Oklahoma. Returning home during her summer break from graduate school in 1991, she found herself working at the Wichita Women’s Center, where her responsibilities included answering phones and assisting with lab work. Little did she know, the city was about to be inundated with anti-abortion demonstrators, who had dubbed their movement the Summer of Mercy.

Wichita had turned into the epicenter of the national abortion debate, and the impact on her was profound. She couldn’t help but be affected by the self-righteousness, violence, intimidation, and lack of respect towards the women seeking care at the clinic. It made her question how one could claim to love and care for someone while simultaneously spewing hatred.

The protesters selected Wichita as their destination with the intention of shutting down Tiller’s clinic, which was located on the other side of town. However, it would be another decade before Burkhart crossed paths with him. During that time, she returned to school in Seattle and had plans to attend medical school. However, her aspirations changed when her stepsister was tragically murdered just a week before the entrance exams. Burkhart then took on the role of managing political campaigns. However, when her partner left her while she was pregnant, she made the decision to move back home, this time with her infant daughter.

In 2001, amidst the resurgence of anti-abortion protests in Wichita, she found herself working as the community affairs director at a Planned Parenthood clinic. It was during this time that she crossed paths with Tiller during security meetings. In a matter of months, he convinced her to join him in establishing a new political action committee.

Dr. Tiller, a former Navy flight surgeon and dedicated Republican, inherited his father’s primary care practice in the 1970s. It was only when women started seeking him out for abortions that he discovered his father had been providing them even before they were legalized by Roe v. Wade.

Burkhart initially described him as someone who was fearless in the face of death threats and had a dry sense of humor that some people misunderstood as being abrupt. However, she found herself connecting with him on a deeper level, describing their relationship as “simpatico.” She didn’t mind when he called her at 1 in the morning, as she was often up working as well.

“We both recognized the inherent risks in this line of work and the need to think innovatively and take calculated risks. It often requires making tough and daring decisions that push the boundaries.”

For the next eight years, she took on the role of representing his clinic in state politics. She admired how he handled the Legislature, as he stood against any attempts to impose seemingly harmless regulations on abortion providers. One example was his resistance to the requirement of larger procedure rooms for abortion clinics, as he believed that such laws would only pave the way for more restrictions imposed by anti-abortion advocates.

A month later, Burkhart, overcome by grief rather than good manners, visited Tiller’s widow. With a PowerPoint presentation in hand, she passionately asked for her approval to reopen the clinic. In 2013, Tiller’s widow granted her blessing, and the clinic was named “Trust Women” in honor of the political button slogan Tiller proudly wore.

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

The Cowboy Code

The Cowboy Code, also known as the Code of the West, is a set of guidelines that were followed by cowboys in the American Old West. These principles were not written down in a formal document, but were rather passed down through oral tradition and the cowboy way of life. The Code of the West embodied the values and ethics that cowboys lived by, and it played a significant role in shaping the culture and character of the American West.

One of the fundamental principles of the Cowboy Code was honesty. Cowboys were expected to always tell the truth and be trustworthy in their dealings with others. This emphasis on honesty was crucial in a time when trust was paramount, as cowboys often relied on one another for their survival and the success of their work.

Another important value in the Cowboy Code was loyalty. Cowboys were expected to be loyal to their friends, family, and the communities they belonged to. This loyalty extended to their work as well, as cowboys were dedicated to their duties and responsibilities on the ranch or during cattle drives.

Courage was also a key aspect of the Cowboy Code. Cowboys faced numerous dangers and challenges in their daily lives, such as wild animals, harsh weather conditions, and confrontations with outlaws. They needed to be brave and resilient in the face of adversity, always ready to protect themselves and others.

Respect for others was another principle emphasized in the Cowboy Code. Cowboys were expected to treat everyone with respect, regardless of their background or status. This included respecting the land, animals, and property of others, as well as showing kindness and consideration towards fellow cowboys and members of the community.

Self-reliance was a quality highly valued in the Cowboy Code. Cowboys had to be self-sufficient and resourceful, as they often found themselves in remote and isolated areas. They needed to rely on their own skills and abilities to navigate the challenges of the frontier and take care of themselves and their livestock.

Finally, the Cowboy Code emphasized integrity. Cowboys were expected to have strong moral principles and to always do what was right, even when it was difficult or inconvenient. This integrity was seen as essential in maintaining the trust and respect of others, as well as in upholding the values of the cowboy way of life.

The Cowboy Code continues to be celebrated and revered today as a symbol of the American West and the cowboy spirit. It serves as a reminder of the values and principles that guided the cowboys of the past and continues to inspire people to live with honesty, loyalty, courage, respect, self-reliance, and integrity.

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, on the western edge, offering medication abortion up to 10 weeks of pregnancy. However, with nearly 100 individuals served by the clinic, almost 400 Wyoming residents had to travel to Colorado for abortions. The harsh Wyoming winters posed additional challenges, with some roads closed due to heavy snow for up to six months.

Lichtenfels suggested that the new clinic be established in Casper, as it is centrally located and serves as the main hub for the state’s population. Moreover, Casper is conveniently situated near highways that connect to four states that have implemented trigger bans.

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Wyoming, known as the “Equality State,” holds the distinction of being the first state to grant women the right to vote and run for office. Additionally, Wyoming made history by electing the first female governor. In 1994, the state’s voters emphatically rejected a proposed ballot measure that aimed to ban abortion by recognizing fetal personhood. Wyoming’s commitment to individual liberty is deeply rooted in its long-standing libertarian tradition. In fact, this tradition was officially recognized in 2010 when the state legislature adopted the “Code of the West,” which draws inspiration from the rugged cowboy lifestyle. This code features ten commandments, including the principles of “talk less, say more” and “remember that some things are not for sale.”

In an interview, Lichtenfels emphasized the significance of helping others in times of need, regardless of one’s personal accomplishments. According to Lichtenfels, lending a hand in tasks like moving a bale of hay or rescuing someone during a blizzard held more value than any personal achievements one may have. It was a testament to the selfless nature of individuals, where the focus was on assisting others rather than dwelling on personal matters.

The state’s voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2012, which granted adults the right to make their own health care decisions. While Republicans in the Legislature aimed to challenge Obamacare, Driskill, the state Senate president, acknowledged that the amendment would also safeguard the right to abortion.

After the death of Tiller, Burkhart took it upon herself to familiarize herself with Wyoming’s abortion laws. She wanted to assist the doctors who had worked in his clinic in finding safer locations to continue their practice. Initially, she expected the situation to have worsened significantly in Wyoming. However, to her surprise, she discovered that not much had actually changed.

Legislatures across the country shifted to Republican control in 2010 and set new records in passing abortion restrictions. In Wyoming, only one requirement was implemented, which mandated women considering abortion to undergo ultrasounds.

Burkhart’s departure from Kansas was not only a personal decision but also a response to the changing landscape of the abortion rights movement. The younger generation of activists was pushing for a broader perspective on reproductive rights, emphasizing the concept of reproductive justice. This idea, originally developed by Black women in the South, resonated with Trust Women and other national reproductive rights groups. The organization recognized the need for new leadership that would reflect the diversity and evolving priorities of the movement. However, within Trust Women, there were some staff members who felt that Burkhart had become too controlling and insistent on doing things her own way.

“I have to admit, I felt like I stayed too long,” she confessed. “I didn’t really have any friends,” she quickly added, acknowledging that she may have exaggerated a bit. Nevertheless, Wichita had started to feel eerie to her. “There was always this lingering negativity, constant reminders of the past,” she explained.

In early 2022, Lichtenfels acquired a one-story former medical building located just half a mile from the charming historic center of Casper. The area is known for its iconic landmarks, such as the towering lighted marquee on a 105-year-old ranch outfitters store. Across the street, there is a cozy coffee bar adorned with stickers on tables that encourage customers to explore the world of “Banned Books.”

In June of that year, just as the Supreme Court was expected to make a ruling on Roe, Burkhart decided to name her clinic Wellspring Health Access. She eagerly anticipated seeing her first patients at the clinic.

“I found it to be an intriguing moment to establish a fresh abortion clinic,” she expressed.

If Roe were to be overturned, the decision on how to regulate abortion would be handed back to the states. In Wyoming, for example, the current law permits the procedure up until viability, which is typically around 24 weeks into the pregnancy. It’s worth noting that this aligns with the laws in some of the more liberal states.

‘My goodness, this is serious.’

The COVID pandemic attracted many conservatives, like Ward, to Wyoming’s live-and-let-live spirit, as they sought refuge from masks and vaccine mandates. The Legislature, which convenes for a short period of either 20 or 40 days depending on the year, witnessed the growing influence of a spirited Freedom Caucus. In 2023, the caucus expanded its membership from five to 26 members, making significant strides. What used to be sessions focused solely on budget discussions now witnessed passionate debates over bills proposed by new members. These bills aimed to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory and 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 prohibits abortion. Burkhart expressed her initial thought, saying, “I believed that we could simply file a lawsuit against the state.”

As Burkhart observed, he witnessed firefighters and police officers diligently carrying out their duties from the bed of a truck across the street. He couldn’t help but be struck by the gravity of the situation, realizing the potential danger involved. The thought crossed his mind, “This is serious. One wrong move could put your life or someone else’s at risk.”

To her surprise, the staff she had hired were willing to stay by her side. Even her contractor, who happened to be a Trump supporter, dedicated additional hours to reconstruct the clinic, although he chose not to display his sign outside.

In July 2022, Burkhart, Lichtenfels, and other advocates for abortion rights in Wyoming filed a lawsuit to challenge the trigger ban. They argued that the ban violated 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 prevail in the trial.

In March 2023, the Legislature took action in response to the situation by passing a new law that brought amendments to the constitution. As a result, it was clearly stated that abortion should not be considered as a form of healthcare. Additionally, another law was passed that specifically prohibited medication abortion. Despite these efforts, the judge intervened and prevented the implementation of these laws.

In that month, a suspect in the arson was apprehended by the police. The suspect turned out to be a college student who claimed to have nightmares about the clinic opening. Despite the setback, Wellspring managed to open its doors in April, after nearly a year of repairs and $300,000 in costs.

Ward, who was among them, criticized the state’s Republican governor for appointing a judge who she believes is not truly pro-life. She referred to the judge as a “radical” for putting the abortion ban on hold, which she sees as a disregard for the Legislature and the people.

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During the council session, she humorously pointed out the irony in the court’s prioritization of protecting the “medical freedom” of women to terminate pregnancies, while neglecting to safeguard our rights during forced vaccinations and job losses amid the pandemic.

An additional location of a crisis pregnancy center, operated by individuals who oppose abortion, was established in Casper. Surprisingly, this second location was situated merely two blocks away from the Wellspring clinic. To dissuade women from seeking services at the clinic, “sidewalk advocates” were dispatched to the alley behind it. These advocates enticed women with roses, gift bags, and the enticing allure of free ultrasounds.

According to Burkhart, she finds it easier to not take the opposition personally nowadays. She believes that her decision to not live in Casper has contributed to this mindset. However, this choice comes with its own set of challenges. For instance, the commute from her home in Colorado to the clinic can be quite long, sometimes taking over three hours, especially if she drives at a faster speed.

She had planned to be present at the clinic once a week, on the day it receives patients, in order to observe every consultation. The doctors who carry out the abortions also come from out of state. However, Burkhart encountered difficulties in finding local, qualified nursing and administrative staff who shared her level of dedication.

In the administrative office at Wellspring, she furrowed her brow as she reviewed the medical records, concerned that the staff may not fully comprehend the potential consequences if the paperwork was not completed accurately. With a marker in hand, she carefully traced the path of patients on the whiteboard, aiming to bring clarity to the flow from the waiting room to treatment and ultimately, to the recovery room.

The staff members characterized it as a form of mission work.

“I became a nurse to assist these girls during their difficult times,” expressed Brittany Brown, reflecting on her motivation. Raised in the conservative atmosphere of Bible Belt Kansas, Brown gained a deep understanding of the challenges women encounter when her husband abandoned her, leaving her to raise their child alone. After stumbling upon an article about the clinic on Facebook, she decided to pursue the position as she felt exhausted from working in a corporate-owned clinic amidst the COVID pandemic and desired to contribute meaningfully to society.”

In the recovery room, hidden behind the thick curtains, 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 had made a four-hour journey from Montana because the clinics closer to their home were overwhelmed with appointments. Despite reaching out, these clinics either failed to respond or offered her an appointment that was two months away.

Growing up in and out of foster care, she and her sisters had a challenging upbringing. Born to immigrant parents who were teenagers at the time, she has experienced firsthand the hardships and struggles that come with such a background. Reflecting on her past, she expressed her strong desire to ensure that no one else has to endure the same difficulties she faced during her childhood.

Jade arrived at the clinic when she was 11 weeks pregnant. After a few hours, she left with a warm hug from a nurse and a paper bag that contained recovery instructions and birth control. A staff member had written a message on the bag, encouraging Jade to “Live life to the absolute fullest!”

As the fall progressed, Burkhart’s frustrations continued to mount. She found herself anxiously awaiting reimbursements from insurance companies and abortion funds, all the while grappling with budget concerns and the challenging task of retaining her staff. With a heavy heart, she had to let go of some individuals whom she suspected of holding anti-abortion views. Additionally, there were those who chose to resign due to their frustration with Burkhart’s perceived disorganization and seemingly unattainable standards.

In late September, she made a trip to Cheyenne to personally witness the sentencing of the 22-year-old woman who admitted to setting the clinic on fire. Burkhart’s intention was to express her gratitude to the law enforcement officials. According to her, it is not common for culprits to be apprehended in such cases.

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

But her visits to Wyoming became less frequent. Staff members reported that right before Thanksgiving, Burkhart had a heated outburst during a videoconference and expressed her intention to resign.

In late January, she informed the staff that she would be stepping down from her position as the head of the clinic. However, she would still be actively involved in leading Wellspring’s board.

In a phone interview, Burkhart expressed her struggle to find balance in her life due to the relentless nature of her work. Despite facing opposition and even experiencing arson, she acknowledged that the local area was not the most hostile she had encountered in her career.

She also co-owns a clinic in Illinois and has plans to open more in the future. She describes herself as someone who thrives in startup environments.

Recruiting Burkhart was a decision made by Lichtenfels, who acknowledged the impact the arson had on her. She had the added responsibility of keeping donors and staff motivated, despite not knowing the identity of the perpetrator or their potential future actions.

According to Lichtenfels, the individual was well aware of the potential dangers, particularly after witnessing Dr. Tiller’s tragic murder. Despite this knowledge, the experience of facing such threats takes a toll both emotionally and physically.

Brown, a nurse, will be in charge of running the clinic in Casper. The clinic will be overseen by a new executive director who currently resides in Arkansas. Interestingly, the executive director is a former 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 so much effort to see this through, and we won’t let everything crumble now.”

The closure of the medication abortion clinic in Jackson in December was attributed to high rent and other expenses. As a result, Wellspring currently stands as the sole abortion clinic in the state, facing the challenge of meeting the growing demand. Recent data from the Wyoming Department of Health reveals a doubling in the number of abortions between 2021 and 2022.

Burkhart’s clinic is still involved in the lawsuits that are challenging Wyoming’s abortion law. A trial is scheduled for April, but in December, both the state and the abortion rights providers presented their arguments in court, seeking a quicker judgment. The judge has the authority to make a ruling at any time.

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