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Casper health clinic that will provide abortion services set on fire, which delays opening

A peach building with a small white fence around it, shaded by a large tree.
Courtesy of Wellspring Health Access

Early Wednesday morning, Julie Burkhart got a call she never really thought she was going to get. The building where Wellspring Health Access is located was set on fire. Police had arrived on the scene and extinguished it but there was substantial smoke damage.

Burkhart is the founder of Wellspring Health Access, the non-profit that is opening a healthcare clinic in Casper that will provide family planning and OB/GYN services, gender-affirming care and surgical abortions. It was scheduled to open in mid-June

But violence in the reproductive health world isn't necessarily new to her. She spent seven years working for Dr. George Tiller in Kansas who was assassinated in 2009.

"So it [her passion to help create better access] was after his assassination and just seeing how the extremists were continuing to commit violent acts against providers. And fortunately, there hadn't been a violent act of that magnitude for many years," said Burkhart.

She started an organization that helped reopen Dr. Tiller's clinic. Since then she has worked on helping to open clinics throughout the nation. But Wellspring Health Access is her first venture alone. She was encouraged to open the clinic in Casper.

"We were approached by people in the state. And so that has felt very welcoming. We are working with some wonderful people on the ground. And people who are clearly invested in having more balance in terms of access to reproductive health care," she said.

Retired attorney Mary Ann Budenske is part of that group. She's lived in Casper since the 80s. She said the group wanted to make sure that women get help from the beginning…"when they find out they're pregnant, helping them with advice and helping them with aftercare."

At the moment, there is only one facility in Wyoming that provides medical abortion --- that's in Jackson. The closest surgical abortions are in Montana and Colorado. If Roe v. Wade gets overturned, state legislators passed what's known as a trigger law which would make abortion illegal in the state. Budenske said in all honesty if that does happen, not much will change for the state in terms of access to reproductive health.

"One of the things that we have to remember here in Casper is that we've effectively had no abortion clinic in the state for a long time," said Budenske. "But the opportunity for women to feel safe about what's happening and to be able to go someplace where they can get some good medical advice, that won't happen."

The fact that abortion could be overturned didn't deter the local group or Burkhart from continuing the plan to open the healthcare clinic. If it happened, they would still provide other reproductive health services that they deem very important to be available for people in the community -- like family planning, gender-affirming care and OB/GYN services.

But then Burkhart got that call early in the morning.

"We've encountered some vandalism, you know, graffiti, things like that. But certainly not anything to this magnitude. And it's incredibly disappointing that a person or people would take it upon themselves to destroy your property and to prohibit people from accessing reproductive healthcare in a timely fashion," she said.

The Casper Police announced Thursday that they are partnering with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the investigation into the fire. Officials believe the fire was intentional because they have identified several areas in the building where an accelerant like gas was used.

Kari Till, the clinic's administrator, said she wasn't necessarily surprised that the arson happened.

"It's definitely something that I do not condone or tolerate, in any manner violence, for anybody's opinion," she said. "But the safety aspect of it is something that I'm not worried about, I think that we definitely are going to look at even providing more safety majors now that this has happened."

The clinic did have cameras around the building which are being used by investigators to figure out who committed the crime. And they always planned to have volunteer escorts for patients. Till said most opponents have been acting peacefully.

"Even if people have different opinions about our clinic, they still value not choosing violence to explain their side, their opinions. So that kind of helps with the safety aspect as well," said Till. "I feel like a lot of people are on our side in the sense of being nonviolent, in speaking your opinion."

Abortion-rights opponents have peacefully demonstrated outside of the building every week since the announcement of the clinic went public.

Burkhart said repairing the damage will be costly.

"We are still putting those estimates together. We're in such an early phase of this. It is hard to say. But it's going to be in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands [of dollars]."

They still plan to open the clinic, but Burkhart said the timeline has been pushed back by at least several weeks.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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