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Wyoming’s first statewide reproductive freedom summit focuses on abortion

A pink-billed baseball cap with a cowgirl riding a horse and the words “Bans Off Our Bodies” sits on a table with pamphlets and t-shirts.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media

At a convention center in Lander, roughly 150 people mingled and chatted at the first-ever Wyoming Reproductive Freedom Summit on June 22. Some sat at round white tables, while others checked out booths from organizations like Wyoming Health Council and Pro-Choice Wyoming.

Marci Shaver is from Goshen County. She said the issue of abortion access hits close to home for her.

“I had seven pregnancies that had to be terminated and under the law that they tried to put through post-Roe, my second pregnancy would have killed me,” she said.

Shaver said she was glad she could make the decision with her doctor and went on to have a couple kids.

Roe v. Wade was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022, removing the constitutional right to abortion and turning the issue to states.

The state’s near-total and medical abortion bans, enacted in 2023, as well as a “trigger ban” enacted in 2022, have been blocked from going into effect while challenges make their way through the courts. In April, the Wyoming Supreme Court declined to rule on the legality of abortion in the state and sent the issue back to the district court in Teton County.

Two women in black hug as a third woman wipes away a tear in a courtroom.
Kathryn Ziesig
Jackson OB/GYN Dr. Giovannina Anthony, second from left, a plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging Wyoming's new law banning most abortions, hugs her attorney after Ninth District Court Judge Melissa Owens issued a temporary of the law Wednesday, March 22, 2023 in Jackson, Wyoming.

Abortion is currently legal in Wyoming until "viability," which is the stage of pregnancy when a fetus has developed enough that it is able to survive outside the uterus with medical help. Abortion in the state is banned after this point, which is generally at 24 to 26 weeks of pregnancy.

Christine Lichtenfels is the executive director of Chelsea’s Fund, the Wyoming-based abortion advocacy non-profit that organized the summit. She wanted to bring people from across the state together to connect and share information with each other since Roe was overturned.

“People have seen just how wrong – all the difficulties, that lives that are in danger, the physicians that feel criminalized, other people who are helping who feel like they're going to be criminalized,” she said.

A woman wearing a magenta button-up shirt stands behind a wooden podium by a table with a banner that says “Wyoming Reproductive Freedom Summit: Health Care is Politics.”
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Chelsea’s Fund Executive Director Christine Lichtenfels makes opening remarks at the Wyoming Reproductive Freedom Summit.

She said one theme kept coming up at the summit over and over again in panel sessions featuring healthcare providers, clergy, lawmakers and patients.

“People do not want governmental interference when it comes to matters of their own body, really, and abortion specifically,” she said.

During a panel with state legislators, Rep. Karlee Provenza (D- Laramie) echoed Lichtenfels’ point.

“That Constitution says we have the right to make our own healthcare decisions,” she said. “I believe the role of the government is to help protect the health and safety of Wyomingites while also upholding their personal freedoms.”

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) was also at the summit. He co-sponsored the 2012 amendment to the Wyoming Constitution that granted Wyoming citizens privacy in healthcare decisions.

At the time, it was passed in reaction to Obamacare. But it has since become a central part of the ongoing legal battle about abortion in Wyoming. It states that “each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”

Four people sit at a table, while one speaks into a microphone.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Wyoming legislators Mike Yin, Liz Storer, Cale Case and Karlee Provenza speak on a panel at the Wyoming Reproductive Freedom Summit.

Case said that some of his colleagues in Cheyenne view themselves as “instruments of the Lord” and “have no view of any limits on government whatsoever in respect to their beliefs.” He called those legislators the driving force behind the abortion bans. He said he felt “very confident” that the language in his amendment would hold up in court.

“That piece about each person having the right to make their own healthcare decisions is very fundamental, very important. And it will prevail,” he said.

Mike Yin (D-Jackson) is the minority floor leader for the state House of Representatives and said access to abortion is a “political problem.”

“We're electing people who don't care about health care in the state. They don't care about keeping young people in the state and they don't care about raising families in the state,” Yin said.

Yin sits on the legislative Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, which has been trying to address the decline in maternal health care throughout the state. But Yin said that decline and threats to abortion are connected.

“The situation in Wyoming is one where not only are we restricting the rights of the people to access that healthcare, we are threatening the providers with jail time itself. So why would any provider decide to serve in Wyoming?” he said.

A 2022 University of Wyoming survey found only seven percent of respondents support a total ban on abortion. A majority favored some limits, like only in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the woman. A little more than a third said abortion is a matter of personal choice.

Dr. Giovannina Anthony is an OB-GYN in Jackson and is one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit against the state’s abortion bans. She said those bans present physicians with what she calls "an impossible choice."

“You're going to risk losing licensure, caring for your family, your career of choice, a prison sentence and a felony charge – or do the right thing for somebody and just hope that it isn’t questioned, that it brings you to court,” she said.

Idaho has lost nearly a quarter of its OB-GYNs since it enacted a near-total ban on abortion, according to a survey from the Idaho Coalition for Safe Healthcare.

Four women sit on a panel. One speaks into the microphone, looking out into the crowd, while the others watch on.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
Abortion providers Dr. Amaon, Dr. Anthony, Dr. Eggleston and Brittany Brown speak on a panel at the Wyoming Reproductive Freedom Summit.

While abortion bans are not in effect in Wyoming in the way they are in Idaho, that loss is starting to happen in the Cowboy State, too.

Dr. Natalie Eggleston grew up in Jackson and was in her last year of residency when Roe was overturned.

“I had every intention of coming back to Wyoming. [I have] deep roots and I was very much planning on this being where my career would flourish and bloom,” she said.

Dr. Eggleston participated in the WWAMI program, a multi-state medical program whose acronym stands for the states served by the UW School of Medicine: Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

But after assessing her options, Dr. Eggleston decided not to return to Wyoming and is now working as an OB-GYN in Billings, Montana instead, where abortion is more clearly codified in the state’s constitution.

“[I] ultimately ended up deciding not to come back to Wyoming right away. But rather to stay involved, to stay outspoken, to find ways for Wyoming to come back and be the Equality State that it's supposed to be,” she said.

And for those who stay?

Brittany Brown is the clinic administrator at the Wellspring Health Access Clinic in Casper, which is one of two locations providing abortions in the state. The other is St. John’s Health, where a physician can prescribe abortion medications.

Wellsprings’ opening was delayed for nearly a year when it was torched by an arsonist.

She said the clinic regularly receives calls from pro-life protestors setting up fake appointments to mess with the facilities’ operations.

“There’ve been plenty of times I’ve been on the phone with a patient and been like, ‘That was weird. Are you really needing help or are you an anti?’” she said.

She said it takes a toll on her.

“I love this job more than anything. It has absolutely been my calling. But the biggest drawback to it has been that I truly don't trust anyone anymore,” she said.

Summit attendee Jane Ifland helps escort patients in and out of Wellspring. She said the summit offered a unique moment.

“Someone came up to me that I know quite well. She was crying and I'm like, ‘What? Joan?’ And she said, ‘I don't know why I'm crying,’” Ifland said. “I thought, ‘I know why you're crying. It's a safe space to feel the stress and anxiety that accompanies the work she and I do.’”

From Ifland’s perspective, everyone has an abortion story and they run the whole gamut of emotions: stress, fear, anxiety and also relief.

“No matter what, it's difficult. And the idea that there are people out there who want to make it more difficult in order to exert control is unconscionable,” she said.

A room of people sit and stand around white tables, chatting with one another.
Hannah Habermann
Wyoming Public Media
The crowd mingles at the Lander Convention Center.

Sam Dahnert was chief of security at the event. Despite Lander being what he calls a “hotbed” for pro-life protesting, the day was quiet.

“There are reports that there was a demonstration here last night for some reason, but one thing leading to another, we had zero issues with access to the event,” he said.

The 40 Days for Life campaign, an internationally coordinated program that aims to end abortion through prayer, fasting, community outreach and organizing daylong stand-ins in front of facilities that provide abortions, routinely takes place in Lander. It’s not uncommon to see pro-life street signs in some yards. But Dahnert said it’s hard to say why there were no protestors at the summit.

“It is also a beautiful Lander Saturday. So maybe they were just inspired to go to the lake instead. Who knows?” he said.

Attendee Lexi Thompson said she sees the state’s bans as a call to action.

“While we have like, really big opposition, there's a lot of people here willing to fight and we have a lot worth fighting for,” she said.

Thompson came to the conference from Laramie and said getting out the vote for candidates that support reproductive rights is a big priority for her going forward.

“I feel like we're at a bit of a turning point about whether or not we're going to move into a super extremist direction or if we're able to take back some of our rights. So being able to make sure that our voices are heard is the most important thing in the next six months for me,” she said.

As the country heads into election season, it’s hard to say where that turning point will lead. And as for the courts? Just this Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it will allow abortions in medical emergencies in Idaho.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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