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Casper Clinic that provides abortions opens after eleven-month delay

Wellspring Health Access clinic was set to open in June 2022 in Casper, Wyo., when it was damaged by arson in late May, 2022. If it opens this year, the women's health and abortion clinic would be the only one of its kind in the state.
Mead Gruver
/
AP
Wellspring Health Access clinic was set to open in June 2022 in Casper, Wyo., when it was damaged by arson in late May, 2022. If it opens this year, the women's health and abortion clinic would be the only one of its kind in the state.

Wyoming now has a clinic that provides surgical abortions. The Casper reproductive health clinic opened its doors last week, but its opening was delayed by about 11 months because it was torched by an arsonist one month before its planned opening.

Wellspring Health Access Clinic Founder Julie Burkhart said it was just about ready to open.

“We were going to open mid-June of ‘22. The arson attack was on May 25,” said Burkhart. “We had all of our physicians recruited, all of our staff members recruited, everything was essentially in place.”

The fire caused heavy damage, melting lights, furniture and equipment. The building's interior had to be gutted and reconstructed. Burkhart said the rebuild actually cost more than the initial build of the facility, coming down to about $290,000.

Burkhart said none of the staff decided to leave but, “we had to spend a lot of time talking about what this means, how people feel about an attack like this on the clinic where they're going to be working and providing care. So, there was that emotional turmoil.”

The opening was continually pushed back but Burkhart said there was no malintent in the delayed opening. It was just a construction delay.

“It wasn't a pointed effort to try to prohibit us or delay us from opening,” she said. “It was just some of the natural things that would happen.”

During those eleven months, a lot happened in the politics of abortion nationally and in the state: the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon certified the trigger ban and made abortion illegal in the state, and then a judge put a temporary stay on that abortion trigger ban until the courts made a decision.

In January, the 67th Wyoming Legislature convened. Representative Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody) introduced a bill known as Life is a Human Right that tried to answer some of the questions the court had.

“Abortion is not healthcare because it isn't, for so, so many reasons,” Rodriguez-Williams said, speaking on the floor of the House during the session. “And I won't waste the body's time. But I'll highlight again that the goal of abortion is the death of a human being.”

But many lawmakers expressed worry about the constitutionality of the bill. Representative Barry Crago (R-Buffalo) put it simply during a House floor debate.

“We're giving the people who want pro-choice ammo,” he said. “That's all we're doing. And we are going to regret it. I'm fairly certain.”

But it passed both the Senate and the House. Gov. Gordon let it become law without his signature, citing similar worries and said the question should be decided with a vote of the people. Those worries did come true and the new abortion ban was immediately challenged and has been put on hold temporarily until a decision is made by the courts.

The day the Casper clinic opened, Casper Mayor Bruce Knell responded to an article about the clinic’s opening using his personal Facebook account with an animation of a man dancing around a fire. In his personal views, Knell is against legal abortions.

“I Googled hellfire, and that's what came up,” said Knell. “This in no way, in no way, no how, was ever meant to incite any violence, or any further destruction of their clinic.”

His response incited pushback in the community, but he said he wasn’t wearing his mayor’s hat when he made that response. As mayor, he said he thinks differently.

“We encourage all taxpaying entities to be able to have a place to own and operate and flourish,” he said. “If the demand is there in our community, their bottom line is up to them.”

Knell acknowledged that the discussion about the abortion clinic has become terse and divided, but he said no matter people’s opinions, including his own, the clinic is a law-abiding business and no one should encourage violence.

“People need to learn how to have a conversation, and how to talk about how they feel,” said Knell. “Violence is absolutely uncalled for. It's unwanted and it's not necessary.”

Twenty-two-year-old Lorna Roxanne Gree has been arrested and charged with setting the clinic on fire. She’s currently awaiting trial.

Wellspring Health Access clinic’s Julia Burkhart said the voices against opening the clinic have been in the minority while the positive voices, “those voices really outnumber the people who wish to spew their rigid ideologies and their hatred towards us. It's been much more of a welcoming community than I think some people might have thought.”

This coming week, the clinic plans to be present at Casper’s city council meeting as a show of strength after the fire and the negative feedback.

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. She has won a regional Murrow award for her reporting on mental health and firearm owners. During her time leading the Wyoming Public Media newsroom, reporters have won multiple PMJA, Murrow and Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Awards. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.

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