‘I Have No Pity’: An Arson Attack at an Abortion Clinic Predicts Our Future

Someone set fire to a would-be Wyoming abortion clinic. It's part of Roe v. Wade’s obituary—and a harbinger of abortion’s future.

CASPER, Wyoming — “The building’s on fire.”

When Julie Burkhart saw that her contractor was calling her before 6 a.m., she braced herself. As a longtime abortion provider, Burkhart was no stranger to setbacks, harassment, even violence. But at the news that the abortion clinic she’d poured two years of her life into creating in Casper was up in flames, Burkhart started to swear, profusely. 

“Who’s there?” she demanded. 

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“The whole damn cavalry,” the contractor told her.

Burkhart leapt out of bed, tossed on some clothes, and raced toward the site of the would-be Wellspring Health Access abortion clinic. On that sunny, late-May morning, members of every possible law enforcement agency seemed to be there. The police. The fire department. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Even the FBI. 

This was no accidental fire, authorities later announced. It was arson.

Initially, Burkhart had planned to open the Wellspring Health Access abortion clinic to patients by mid-June, right around the time she—and much of the rest of the United States—expected the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. Wellspring could have been a kind of post-Roe abortion clinic, welcoming patients from Wyoming as well as the surrounding states set to ban abortion. To keep her doors open, Burkhart was prepared to fight abortion opponents in the statehouse and in the courts.

The fiery attack on what would have been Wyoming’s only surgical abortion clinic is, at once, the coda in an obituary of Roe v. Wade and a harbinger of the future of abortion in the United States.

Weeks after the fire, on June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court did what everybody expected it to do: Six justices, the entirety of the court’s conservative majority, agreed to overturn Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 Supreme Court decision that had affirmed the national right to abortion. “The Constitution does not confer a right to abortion,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the court’s opinion. “Roe and Casey must be overruled, and the authority to regulate abortion must be returned to the people and their elected representatives.”

The fiery attack on what would have been Wyoming’s only surgical abortion clinic is, at once, the coda in an obituary of Roe v. Wade and a harbinger of the future of abortion in the United States. For half a century, the modern anti-abortion movement bent its ever-growing power toward ending Roe. But the war over American abortion is far from over, for either side: It will now be fought state by state, in legislatures, in courtrooms, and, evidently, in abortion clinics themselves.

Although the outside of the abortion clinic was mostly undamaged, save for a few shattered windows, the inside was a blackened husk of a building. (Jika González​ for VICE News)

As providers and patients scramble to adapt in Roe’s ruins, anti-abortion activists are prepared to keep fighting, with all the confidence of a movement that’s realized a once-unthinkable goal and can now pursue what it really wants—such as punishments for people they consider murderers. For Wyoming and every other state in this country, the coming years promise to be wildly volatile, even violent.

By the time Burkhart was finally allowed inside the clinic, she had to let go of her plan to open in June. Although the outside of the clinic was mostly undamaged, save for a few shattered windows, the inside was a blackened husk of a building. Lights had melted off the ceiling and fallen to the floor. An exam table was so charred it was nearly unrecognizable. Ashes and broken glass were everywhere. The building reeked of a noxious, rotting odor that, weeks later, could still induce a throbbing headache within moments.

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And yet the damage could have been much worse. Had the flames burned for longer, they could have reached the gas station that sits next door to the abortion clinic.

For Wyoming and every other state in this country, the coming years promise to be wildly volatile, even violent.

After the fire, Burkhart waited across the street from the clinic, watching law enforcement sort through its remains. She couldn’t stop wondering about every person who passed by, who asked questions. What did they want? Were they responsible in some way?

“You start to wonder, who is out there that you can trust? Are they going to do more harm? I don’t think it’s right that anybody live that way,” Burkhart said. “I think all of us feel terrorized.”

Days after the arson, dozens of anti-abortion activists gathered on the sidewalk in front of Wellspring, to protest a clinic that was nowhere near opening. As long as Burkhart wasn’t giving up, they weren’t, either. 

“People need to understand the gravity of this. They need to understand the consequences of pushing providers even further to the margins,” Burkhart said. “Outlawing abortion on a federal level—we are seeing, with more of this violence, what it’s doing to people and most importantly to the people who need to access services.”

The plains around Casper, population 58,000, are so flat that, if you wake up early enough, you can catch the sun rising in one corner of the sky and the moon sinking in the other. 

The wind howls through the wide downtown streets, which look disconcertingly like a Western movie set, almost to the point of parody. One four-story shop has walls lined with cowboy boots and hats; while browsing, I found camo overalls for toddlers.  

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Mostly, Casper felt like what it was: the second-largest city in a state that was last won by a Democratic presidential candidate in 1964 and handed former President Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in 2016. In May, Trump held a rally at a local Casper arena. When I visited that arena to watch a rodeo, one vendor was selling Confederate flag merchandise.

“It’s turning redder and redder, but it’s a beautiful place to live, because of the Wyoming spaces and the blue sky and the clean air and friendly people, mostly,” said Holly Thompson, a retired school teacher and Casper native who supports the Wellspring clinic. On an evening earlier this month, I walked past a bar decked out in rainbow streamers and advertising a “PRIDE NIGHT” on a homemade sign. Thompson continued, “But we’re seeing a real change to anti-intellectualism, and I feel there’s more anger and hostility here than I’ve ever seen.”

In May, former President Donald Trump held a rally at a local Casper arena. When I visited that arena to watch a rodeo, one vendor was selling Confederate flag merchandise. (Jika González for VICE News)

News about Wellspring Health Access broke locally in April. The clinic was set to be the first in Wyoming to do surgical abortions, which can be performed later on in pregnancy than pill-induced medication abortions. Protests started up soon afterward. 

Bob Brechtel, a former Wyoming state representative, is one of the organizers behind the protests, which convene on Thursday evenings. He told me he has protesters sign a “prayer commitment and statement of peace,” which pledges that signers “will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion.” They must also agree that they are “in no way associated with Planned Parenthood, its affiliates, or any abortion provider.” (Signers are asked for their contact information and church affiliation; Brechtel said that parishioners from as many as 37 churches had shown up at the Casper clinic over the weeks.) 

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Soft-spoken but towering, Brechtel told me he was “disappointed to hear” about the fire.

“I’m sure that there’s a lot of people who think that possibly a well-meaning pro-life person would have done it,” he said. “If the shoe was on the other foot, we might ask ourselves, ‘Is it possible that they did it to themselves to draw attention?’ But we’re not really saying that either. We just want to know the truth.”

The clinic was set to be the first in Wyoming to do surgical abortions, which can be performed later in pregnancy than pill-induced medication abortions can. Protests started up soon afterward.

Mike Pyatt, another protester, was more straightforward when I asked him about the Wellspring fire. He described his feelings in a single word: “Elation.”

“I didn’t set it. I don’t know who set it. But our group and others have been praying that this clinic would never open. So I didn't shed a tear,” Pyatt said. “We don't want them. We didn't invite them. And they're not welcome. So they know that. And they put themselves in a situation, knowing the volatility of killing babies. So I have no pity for them or the situation.”

Pyatt is one of the men behind a local group called Liberty's Place 4 U WY. “By ‘liberty,’” he explained, “we mean small government, small taxes—no taxes if we had our way—personal property, and to be left alone as much as possible.”

Pyatt, who said he “came to Christ” in the 1970s, doesn’t believe in mask or vaccine mandates. He’s intrigued by “constitutional sheriffs,” a movement that claims that sheriffs’ authority trumps that of the federal government. And he thinks states should not only be able to deny abortion rights but also be able to ban same-sex marriage and same-sex intimacy.

Mike Pyatt, another protester, was more straightforward when I asked him about the Wellspring fire. He described his feelings in a single word: “Elation.”

That’s a looming possibility. The legal thinking that led to Roe also undergirded the Supreme Court cases that established the rights to contraception and to same-sex marriage, and abolished homophobic laws against sodomy. In a concurring opinion Friday, Justice Clarence Thomas outright suggested that the cases that established the rights to each should now be re-evaluated.

Pyatt took specific aim at Wyoming’s previous governor for agreeing to enforce Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that legalized same-sex marriage.

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“The court came down and he said, ‘OK, I can't do anything.’ And many of us said, ‘Oh, you could have. You could have said, I'm going to order all the county clerks’—there's 23 counties here—to deny marriage licenses,” Pyatt said. “He should have said that. But he folded like a cheap tent.”

In total, 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion restrictions. Thirteen states already have so-called “trigger laws” on the books, which were designed to ban abortion more or less automatically once Roe is overturned. As of Friday, at least eight states had started enforcing abortion bans, according to the Guttmacher Institute. In other abortion-hostile states, providers have shut down on their own, since doing their jobs now risks jail time. 

Millions of people—disproportionately women, poor people, people of color—will now be unable to end pregnancies in their home state and likely be forced into birthing and raising children.

Wyoming is one of those trigger-law states. Signed in March, its law lets the state ban almost all abortions in as little as five days after Roe is overturned. 

Burkhart plans to sue over Wyoming’s trigger law, but if it’s in effect, abortions will be permitted only in cases of rape, incest, or when “necessary to preserve the woman from a serious risk of death or of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function.” Rape and incest exceptions have been regularly included in abortion prohibitions for decades, ever since states started loosening 19th-century laws on abortion in the 1960s, but they’ve started to disappear in recent years. 

Millions of people—disproportionately women, poor people, people of color—will now be unable to end pregnancies in their home state and likely be forced into birthing and raising children.

Earlier this month, the National Right to Life unveiled model legislation for lawmakers to use in the post-Roe era. The anti-abortion group, one of the oldest and most influential in the country, suggested that the procedure should only be allowed “to prevent the death of the pregnant woman.” Even in that case, it should be performed “in the manner that provided the best opportunity for the unborn child to survive.”

These policies are decidedly fringe. In a 2018 Gallup poll, 52 percent of registered voters said they supported abortion access in cases of rape or incest even in the third trimester of pregnancy. But removing rape and incest exceptions aligns with the fundamental anti-abortion belief that a fetus is a person, worthy of full rights and protections. It’s a concept that would rewrite vast swaths of U.S. law and heighten the risk that pregnant people will be criminalized for potentially endangering the fetus inside them, even if they do so by accident.

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Pyatt hopes that, soon, legislators will strip Wyoming’s trigger law of all its exceptions.

“Killing the baby, it's only one more wounded person,” Pyatt said. “To kill a baby, so one feels better? That's brutal.” 

Burkhart’s foray into running clinics coincided with one of the most turbulent decades in U.S. abortion history—and one that clinched the victory the anti-abortion movement has spent a half-century craving: the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Burkhart hadn’t really planned to start her own abortion clinic network. She first started working in an abortion clinic in Wichita, Kansas, as a summer job. She ended up spending seven years working for Dr. George Tiller, who provided abortions late into pregnancy and who was, for much of his career, one of the greatest targets of the anti-abortion movement. 

Protesters besieged his clinic during the 1991 so-called Summer of Mercy, when hordes of anti-abortion activists descended on Wichita in an effort to close the town’s abortion clinics. By early August, police had made more than 1,600 arrests; at times, 40 cops were needed to defend Tiller’s clinic. Two years later, a woman shot Tiller in both arms.

Then, on May 31, 2009, an abortion opponent shot and killed Tiller in his church.

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“I just couldn't fathom letting somebody walk into that community, walk into his church, murder him, and then somehow we were all going to just go home,” Burkhart recalled. “I just felt that it was deeply, deeply, deeply unacceptable to let that lie as it was. I kept waiting … Frankly, I kept waiting for the grownups to show up.”

“I continued to have this burning in my belly that it needed to be done,” Burkhart went on. “And then I realized that I was one of the grownups in the room.”

That’s when she founded the nonprofit Trust Women and, a few years later, set up an abortion clinic in Tiller’s old building.

Burkhart is clearly seasoned at handling the disappointments and dangers that come with running abortion clinics anywhere, let alone in a red state. She’s powered through on a fierce sense of principle; for Burkhart, providing abortions is a matter of justice. “When did we stop caring in this country about poor people?” she asked me at one point. “It just angers me so much that we can have these political agendas met on the backs of women, on the backs of poor people, on the backs of people of color.”

Julie Burkhart's Wellsping Health Access abortion clinic was supposed to open by mid-June in Casper, Wyoming. (Jika González for VICE News)

The truth is that most people in the United States wanted to keep Roe v. Wade. Although polling on abortion can be nuanced, the majority of Americans have supported the landmark ruling since 1989, according to Gallup poll after poll. But people who support abortion do not, it turns out, tend to vote like it matters. For years, voters who identified as “pro-life” were more likely to say they would only vote for candidates who shared their views on abortion. 

For many conservatives, abortion is a genocide that must be urgently stopped, with tens of millions already dead. Among liberals, abortion is often seen as a matter of women’s rights—something the United States has only ever been ambivalent about anyway. 

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An obituary for Roe v. Wade, one that explains how a determined minority overturned a nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court precedent, could start with the year 1977. That’s when Illinois Rep. Henry Hyde championed the Hyde Amendment, which blocks the use of federal funding for most abortions and slashed at poor women’s ability to get them. (Hyde wasn’t shy about his goal to end abortion, evoking comparisons to Nazi Germany. “The only virtue to abortion is that it is a final solution,” the Republican congressman announced on the House floor.) It could start in 1979, when Rev. Jerry Falwell established the Moral Majority, and trace how, in the 1980s and 1990s, the religious right took direct aim—sometimes literally—at abortion, until they commandeered the Republican party.

But no Roe obituary would be complete without a focus on what happened after Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. Republicans struck back with a plan to overtake state legislatures ahead of redistricting. After the 2010 midterms, they controlled 54 state legislatures, more than at any point since 1952.

Abortion foes have long been extremely well-organized, from the sidewalk protests in Wyoming to the highest echelons of power in Washington, D.C.

Despite the attention paid to Roe, the vast majority of abortion regulation takes place at the state level. State legislatures started churning out abortion restrictions at a stunning pace: Between 2011 and June 2021, they enacted 573 restrictions—at that point, more than 40 percent of all abortion restrictions enacted since Roe, in 1973. By the end of 2021, 19 states had enacted 108 abortion restrictions. That’s the most restrictions in any single year since Roe.

Abortion foes have long been extremely well-organized, from the sidewalk protests in Wyoming to the highest echelons of power in Washington, D.C. Ask young people why they’re at the March for Life, the largest anti-abortion gathering in the United States, and they tend to say the same thing: to make abortion not just illegal but unthinkable. The Women’s March could never muster such messaging discipline.

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The campaign to pass abortion restriction after restriction was coordinated across states, with lawmakers relying on model legislation created by national groups. This campaign primarily focused not on directly challenging Roe but also on hacking away at abortion access by passing restrictions that made it uniquely difficult to obtain the procedure or that were so onerous they forced clinics to close. Abortion rights supporters called these laws “TRAP laws,” or “Targeted Regulations of Abortion Providers.”

Then, in 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that a Texas “TRAP law” that had shut down roughly half of the state’s abortion clinics was, in fact, unconstitutional. Abortion rights supporters celebrated the ruling as a much-needed win; abortion opponents realized they had to retool their approach.

Cue Donald Trump.

Trump was nowhere near the anti-abortion movement’s first choice in the 2016 presidential election. Not only had the gaudy reality-TV star previously supported abortion rights, but he was unable to even stick to the most basic of anti-abortion talking points. (During his 2016 campaign, he said women should face “some form of punishment” for violating an abortion ban, then walked his position back hours later.) But, ultimately, Trump won the anti-abortion movement’s support. He pledged to only nominate “pro-life” justices to the Supreme Court. In one debate, he claimed that Hillary Clinton wanted to “rip the baby out of the womb in the ninth month on the final day.” (It was a medically inaccurate pronouncement, but it was gruesome and moving—classic qualities of anti-abortion rhetoric.)

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Beyond what he could do for the anti-abortion movement, however, Trump’s ascension to the presidency coincided with a profound revelation for its most hard-line adherents: Ideas that were once seen as extremist and politically toxic could now succeed.

Like outright abortion bans.

In 2018, Mississippi banned abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. In 2019, Alabama banned abortion almost entirely, the same year that at least six other states—including Mississippi—passed bills to ban abortion as early as six to eight weeks into pregnancy. These bills flew in the face of Roe, which protected abortion access up until fetal viability, a benchmark that typically occurs at around 24 weeks of pregnancy.

If abortion opponents had previously hoped to kill Roe with a thousand cuts, they were now taking a flamethrower to it. Court challenges blocked these bans, but that was the point: As the cases worked their way up through the courts, they inched closer to becoming chances for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe outright.

In May 2021, the Supreme Court—loaded with three Trump-tapped justices—took the bait. They agreed to hear a case about that Mississippi 15-week ban, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. As soon as that case was taken, many abortion-rights supporters knew it was over. 

“People have thought that we’re this Chicken Little, screaming that the sky is falling, the sky is falling,” said Renee Bracey Sherman, the founder and executive director of We Testify, which works to promote the representation of people who have had abortions, told me last year. “The time to have acted and prevented what is about to happen was 10 years ago.”

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Without Roe, much of the South and Midwest are poised to become abortion deserts. If they’re early enough in their pregnancy, people in those regions can safely self-manage their abortions. Or they will have to travel to the coasts for abortions—if they can afford to take time off work, find childcare, and pay for the travel and procedure (which tends to get more expensive later into pregnancy), as well as the myriad other costs, both financial and emotional, that come with traveling for an abortion. 

If abortion opponents had previously hoped to kill Roe with a thousand cuts, they were now taking a flamethrower to it.

Even people who live in states where abortion is protected will likely see their access to it flicker as patients scramble to find appointments at overrun clinics. Colorado, the only state that both touches Wyoming and is expected to preserve abortion access, will suddenly become the closest state with an abortion provider for up to 1.2 million women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. (People who aren’t women get abortions, but the Guttmacher Institute relies on U.S. census data.) That’s a possible patient spike of more than 500 percent. North Carolina could see an increase of roughly 4,600 percent.

Texas, which last September used a novel legal maneuver to outlaw abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, offered a snapshot at what happens to clinics when people flee abortions bans. Texans swamped Trust Women’s Oklahoma City abortion clinic, to the point that many Oklahomans could no longer get appointments in their home state. Instead, they had to travel to the clinic’s sister location—to the Trust Women clinic in Tiller’s old building in Wichita. In May, using that same legal maneuver, Oklahoma banned almost all abortions from the moment of fertilization.

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Kansas, which has just four clinics, is set to become the closest provider of abortions for up to 7.7 million women. Facing a flood of patients from Texas and Oklahoma, the Trust Women clinic in Wichita has been operating at capacity for months, said Zachary Gingrich-Gaylord, the group’s communications manager. By tweaking some processes—adding doctors, improving clinic flow—he estimated that clinics could maybe see 50 extra people a month.

“There really isn’t a solution that finds 7 million appointments,” he said.

Burkhart left Trust Women to launch Wellspring Health Access and the Casper clinic. During a recent visit to the town, where she’s no longer staying overnight, Burkhart was obviously exhausted. She’d been grappling with PTSD after the fire, which occurred just days before the 13th anniversary of Tiller’s murder. On some nights, she couldn’t sleep.

One law enforcement official recently asked her if she’d experienced vandalism at an abortion clinic before. Burkhart realized that, yes, every clinic she’d ever worked at had been vandalized. She’s just become desensitized to it, because it’s part of the cost of doing business as an abortion provider.

“I worry about places like this, where we're in a smaller community. There is a level of hostility toward reproductive rights here,” she said of Casper. “But then I also worry about the more liberal states and where abortion is accessible, that they're going to be targets because that's where everybody's going to have to go and gather.”

Burkhart estimates that litigation over Wyoming’s trigger law will cost, at minimum, $100,000. Rebuilding Wellspring will likely cost around $75,000, on top of the $200,000 Burkhart has already put into renovating the building. And it may be as long as six months before the clinic opens its doors, if ever. 

Other lawsuits are just beginning to start. On Saturday, Planned Parenthood Association of Utah sued over Utah’s trigger ban, which blocks almost all abortions. Now that the U.S. Constitution evidently doesn’t protect the right to choose abortion, many legal battles will ultimately dwindle to questions about whether that protection—or, at least, some guarantee of control over one’s body, of the right to privacy—in embedded in states’ constitutions. Burkhart is betting that, in Wyoming, it is.

After all, the state’s motto is “equal rights.” It’s said to be a reference to the fact that, in Wyoming, women have always been able to vote.

In the meantime, no one has been publicly named as a suspect in the Wellspring arson case. The Denver field division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives is now offering a $5,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the arsonist, who is believed to be a white woman. Earlier this month, the Casper police released footage of her scurrying across the clinic’s waiting room carrying a red gas canister.

No one has been publicly named as a suspect in the Wellspring arson case. (Jika González for VICE News)

In one eerie snapshot, taken outside the clinic, she looks directly at the camera. A surgical mask obscures most of her face. Her eyes are unreadable.

For Burkhart, that photo is of a domestic terrorist.

“There is that unsettled feeling with that person now running around free in society,” she said. “They very much intended to terrorize not only us but also those potential patients, the clients who would be coming in to see us, the physicians who have been planning on practicing with us. It's very unsettling.”

Burkhart knows that the Casper clinic may not reopen. She may not be able to get the money for either rebuilding or waging a legal battle. She may not be able to convince a judge to halt the trigger ban. Sometimes, a part of Burkhart accepts this possible future. Maybe conservative-dominated areas, like Casper, will simply not have abortion. Maybe the country will further cleave in two, between her vision of the United States and Pyatt’s, the protester who was elated to hear about the fire.

“But on the other end of the spectrum, we might win,” Burkhart said. “As Dr. Tiller used to say, ‘Win, lose, or draw, at least we tried.’ And I would feel irresponsible and horrible if we just decided to pack it up and not give it a shot.”

Tagged:

abortion, supreme court, wyoming, abortion clinic, anti-abortion protests, roe v. wade, Abortion Rights, anti abortion extremists

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