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.
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.
For Wyoming and every other state in this country, the coming years promise to be wildly volatile, even violent.
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.”
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.
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.
Mike Pyatt, another protester, was more straightforward when I asked him about the Wellspring fire. He described his feelings in a single word: “Elation.”
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.
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.
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.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.”
Abortion foes have long been extremely well-organized, from the sidewalk protests in Wyoming to the highest echelons of power in Washington, D.C.
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.
If abortion opponents had previously hoped to kill Roe with a thousand cuts, they were now taking a flamethrower to it.