For decades anti-abortion activists struggled to find traction for abortion bans in the Wyoming Legislature. That changed as recently elected lawmakers joined forces with lobbyists, forging the passage of HB 92, according to experts.
Cassandra Scott considers herself a veteran of Wyoming’s often dicey travel conditions.
Yet the treacherous roads still took her by surprise on the clear day in February when she and her husband left their Laramie home and drove to Fort Collins to get an abortion for medical reasons. Both lanes of the highway were slicked with ice, and wind-fueled ground blizzards obscured the pavement. She watched a car slide across the grassy median and into her lane. A drive that should have taken an hour stretched into three.
By the time she arrived at the Planned Parenthood, she was an hour late for her appointment — the office had tried to call Scott, but cell service was spotty on the drive. She begged the receptionist not to reschedule: They’d had to ask her mother to babysit, her husband had the day off and they didn’t want to repeat the drive. Plus, it had taken three weeks to schedule the appointment in the first place. “It’s kind of a time-sensitive matter,” Scott said.
She was persuasive, which turned out in her favor. After her ultrasound, Scott discovered she wasn’t six weeks pregnant, as she’d originally believed, but 11 weeks and three days. That meant she would need a surgical, rather than a medication abortion. Scott was grateful her husband was there, because the clinic would not have allowed her to drive home alone.
“There’s a lot of hurdles and obstacles in just that short distance,” Scott said.
Like Scott, most Wyoming women who seek an abortion must travel to Colorado for the procedure. There are only two Wyoming providers — both in Jackson — that perform the procedure. One clinic only provides medication abortions up to 10 weeks of pregnancy, and the other offers both surgical and medication abortions.
According to the 2020 Induced Termination Pregnancy Report, 91 abortions were performed in Wyoming that year, all of which took place before 11 weeks. Many more state residents had the procedure, according to Dr. Giovannina Anthony, who works at one of the last clinics in the state openly providing abortions, just not inside the state limits.
“Seventy percent of Wyoming women who get an abortion do so in Colorado,” Anthony said. Just the Pill, a website that allows women to order abortion-inducing medications by mail, does serve residents, but for surgical abortions, women mostly travel out of state.
The already limited access to abortions in Wyoming could soon be completely eliminated.
In a reversal of long-standing policy, the Wyoming Legislature passed what could amount to a total abortion ban, except in cases where medically necessary, or when pregnancy is a result of rape or incest – a carve out that barely passed. House Bill 92 – Abortion prohibition-supreme court decision would ban abortion in the state should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.
Gov. Mark Gordon signed the “trigger-ban” bill into law Tuesday.
Abortion access, like access to many kinds of medical care in Wyoming, has long been limited by availability. But the level of legislative support for anti-abortion legislation necessary to pass HB 92 marks a more recent shift. For years bills banning abortion struggled to gain traction.
“Wyoming wasn’t on the radar for abortion restrictions for decades,” said Elizabeth Nash, state policy analyst for the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights research center. A shift in the Legislature’s makeup, more aggressive anti-abortion lobbying efforts and a more piece-meal approach to restrictions converged to make HB 92 possible, according to both advocates and opponents of the abortion ban.
“I think that the grassroots like myself are beginning to rise up and say, ‘We need to get involved,’” said Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette), one of the bill’s co-sponsor’s. “We’ve been being represented by people that don’t necessarily represent our values. And so that’s why I think you see a change.”
Wyoming already has some restrictions on the books, including mandatory parental consent for minors and a prohibition of public funds to pay for abortions except in certain scenarios such as rape and incest, or if the procedure is deemed medically necessary, according to NARAL-Pro Choice America.
Surgical abortions aren’t widely available in Wyoming because there isn’t enough demand to cover the costs of purchasing equipment and training nurses, said Anthony. Dr. Brent Blue is the only physician in the state to offer surgical abortions, although he says it’s a rarely requested procedure.
Even without laws that restrict access to abortion, there are not many options for women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. Those who travel to Salt Lake City or Boise for abortions must contend with waiting-period laws that can extend time away. Utah requires a 72-hour waiting period between consultation and procedure, while Idaho requires 24 hours.
Wyoming’s brutal winter conditions and frequent road closures pose another hurdle, said Christine Lichtenfels, a board member of Chelsea’s Fund, an organization that provides financial assistance to those seeking an abortion. “That’s a real problem,” Lichtenfels said. “It’s hard enough to get time off of work, get childcare, maybe borrow a car.”
Idaho’s Legislature banned abortions after six weeks, and Utah has a trigger-ban bill in place, that, like Wyoming’s, would ban the procedure if Roe were overturned.
Restrictions across several states means those seeking abortions may have to travel as far away as Oregon or California, where resources could be quickly overwhelmed, Nash at Guttmacher said.
“There will be a period of time where capacity is stretched very thinly, because even in states with availability like Oregon, California, Washington or Colorado, they also aren’t able to meet the need that exists in their state,” she said. “Then you add in more patients, particularly patients who are traveling, that’s a big burden.”
A recent shift
Between the late 1980s and 2017 abortion bans were essentially off of Wyoming’s legislative agenda, Nash said. Bills were introduced during that period and some gained a little support, but none made it to the governor’s desk, according to Nash.
While Wyoming has long been a Republican stronghold, legislators were not seeking abortion restrictions as aggressively as they have in the last few years, Nash said. “There was very much this approach of ‘there are some things that are private, and you handle them in the way that you believe is best.’”
In the last five or so years, though, the Legislature has passed more restrictions and regulations. For example, although Wyoming required clinics to provide data on the number of abortions performed, in 2019 penalties for non-compliance were added.
“In the 17 years I’ve been here, I think this Legislature has gone from a much more libertarian conservatism to a full on radical, right-wing-agenda type of political milieu,” Anthony said.
Robert Johnston, executive director of the Wyoming Health Council, also noted a change. “It’s gotten much uglier,” Johnston said. “I think that some of the elements that we’re seeing in our Legislature are asking for government oversight of things that a traditional Republican would never have endorsed.”
Sharon Breitweiser, executive director of Pro-Choice Wyoming, wants to dispel the notion that abortion rights were ever completely secure in Wyoming. “We worked our butts off every year from 1990 through 2022,” Breitweiser said, “But it’s obviously gotten worse in the last few years.” Breitweiser also noted anti-abortion activists have put more pressure on legislators, using what she described as “bullying tactics.”
Anti-abortion advocates say they have ramped up efforts in recent years, and that both sides of the issue are racheting up their amplification.
“When I moved here 30 years ago, I just assumed this was a pro-life state until I realized there were abortion laws on the books,” said Marti Halverson, president of the Wyoming chapter of Right to Life. She said in the last few years her organization has been getting more active statewide, and calling out legislators “that voted against life.” For example, Right to Life ranks legislators on its webpage. Lawmakers who have co-sponosered at least one anti-abortion bill are classified “bronze,” while those who have only supported measures receive an “honorable mention.”
“I think both sides are getting louder,” Halverson said.
She also noted the new class of legislators who were elected in 2020. “I think they drove a lot of the pro-life conversation to the surface,” Halverson said.
House Bill 92’s main sponsor, Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams (R-Cody), has served since 2021. Rep. John Romero-Martinez (R-Cheyenne), one of the bill’s 15 co-sponsors, is also a relative new-comer to the Wyoming Legislature, as is Bear.
2021 marked what many say is the biggest groundswell of legislative action yet — lawmakers filed eight abortion bills during the session. “I would say I think it happened last year,” Romero-Martinez said. “I think the groundwork part of the movement has been happening since I was teenager.”
None of the three are confident that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. “I’m hopeful,” Halverson said. Romero-Martinez says he did not support the exception allowing victims of rape and incest to access abortions, and if the Supreme Court does allow Wyoming to ban abortion the Legislature will still have work to do.
While women like Scott already travel out of state for abortions, a full ban in Wyoming, Utah and Idaho could result in even longer waiting times and other challenges in places that still offer the procedure.
“It’ll once again leave access largely to those that have more resources,” said Lichtenfels with Chelsea’s Fund. “It’ll be important to get the word out that abortion is still legal in this nation and that people should not feel like they are beaten into submission and can’t have any authority over their own life.”