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Wyoming's new ban on abortions has been temporarily blocked


The state judge has put a temporary hold on Wyoming's new law banning most abortions. That means the one clinic in the state that provides abortion care can continue to do so for at least another week until a judge hears the challenge from reproductive rights advocates. Will Walkey from the Mountain West News Bureau reports.

WILL WALKEY, BYLINE: Like several states, Wyoming earlier this year passed a law to ban most abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned federal privacy protections. When that happened in June, the president of Wyoming Right to Life, Marti Halverson, called it a great day for her movement.

MARTI HALVERSON: We just couldn't contain ourselves. We were exuberant. Computers were smoking with emails and posts on social media. We were just exuberant.

WALKEY: The mood was different at the only clinic currently performing abortions in Wyoming in the small and remote resort town of Jackson. Dr. Giovannina Anthony, an OB-GYN here, says they started getting panicked phone calls soon after Governor Mark Gordon signed the new state ban into law.

GIOVANNINA ANTHONY: Can you imagine, you have an abortion scheduled and you have no idea now that you've heard the news that it's illegal, am I going to be able to get this procedure? What can I do? What can I do?

WALKEY: The law allows abortions if the mother's life or health are at risk and in cases of incest or rape. But Anthony says there's a lot of gray area. Verifying if someone has been sexually assaulted is hard, and the burden of proof is on the patient. If she can't, she faces up to 14 years in prison.

ANTHONY: I am not an investigator of a crime. And I would feel that in order to preserve my practice and my ability to care for other people, I would have to refer that person elsewhere.

WALKEY: Anthony is now one of six plaintiffs arguing that Wyoming's ban violates the state constitution. University of Wyoming law professor Ken Chestek says it specifically protects people's rights to make their own health care decisions.

KEN CHESTEK: Reproductive freedom is very - clearly, in my mind, it's a health care choice. I can't think of anything else that it could be considered.

WALKEY: Wyoming District Court Judge Melissa Owens found that argument compelling enough to delay enforcement of the ban and scheduled a hearing for August 9. If she rules against Wyoming's new law, abortion opponents could try to amend the state constitution. Wyoming's legislature is conservative and anti-abortion, but the process could still take years. Abortion opponents like Wyoming Right to Life's Marti Halverson say they'll continue to push for restrictions on abortion.

HALVERSON: You can throw all the what-ifs at me that you want. But our position is it is never necessary.

WALKEY: Her group is currently pushing for Wyoming to also ban two common drugs used for abortion in telehealth services and eliminate the current law's exceptions for rape and incest.

HALVERSON: We're not trying to force our beliefs on anybody else. We're just glad the mood is trending the way it is in this state and many other states.

WALKEY: Even if Wyoming's abortion ban is struck down, it's still challenging and expensive to get an abortion here. And if the clinic in Jackson closes, the nearest providers would be in Montana or Colorado, hours away by car. The four other states neighboring Wyoming have all either banned or severely restricted abortion access. Lawsuits against the bans in Idaho and Utah are currently pending. Julie Burkhart is trying to open a new abortion care clinic in Casper, Wyoming's biggest city in the center of the state. But in June, an arsonist torched the building.

JULIE BURKHART: It was devastating that someone would break in to a business that has legal standing and would set it on fire.

WALKEY: No one has been arrested. Burkhart still plans to open the Casper clinic in the next four to six months, but it's unclear whether abortion will still be legal then.

For NPR News, I'm Will Walkey in Jackson, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Walkey