Wyoming Judge Blocks State Abortion Pill Ban

Indicating that she will declare abortion as a health care right under the Wyoming Constitution, Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens on Thursday temporarily blocked the state's ban on chemical abortion pills.

Clair McFarland

June 23, 20234 min read

Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens speaks during a hearing where she denied a request by lawmakers, Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray and Right to Life Wyoming to defend the laws that ban most abortions in the state.
Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens speaks during a hearing where she denied a request by lawmakers, Wyoming Secretary of State Chuck Gray and Right to Life Wyoming to defend the laws that ban most abortions in the state. (Bradly J. Boner, Jackson Hole News&Guide, Pool)

A Wyoming district court judge has temporarily blocked a statewide ban on chemical abortion bills a week before it was to go into effect.  

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon in March signed the chemical abortion ban prohibiting sale, distribution or use of any pills for the purpose of procuring abortions. The law would have exempted pregnant women from prosecution, but treated other violations as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $9,000. It was set to go into effect July 1.

But Gordon’s own appointee, Teton County District Court Judge Melissa Owens, issued a temporary restraining order against the ban Thursday to pause it pending further court proceedings.

Letting the ban go into effect, said Owens, would cause irreparable harm to pro-choice plaintiffs suing to overturn Wyoming's abortion bans.

The plaintiffs, she said, have shown they’re likely to win their lawsuit to make abortion a statewide health care right.

“Essentially, the government under this law is making the decision for a woman,” said Owens. “Rather than the woman making her own health care choice, which is what the overwhelming majority in Wyoming decided that we should get to do.”

What State Constitution Says

Wyomingites in 2012 passed a health-care autonomy provision into their state Constitution, though the provision gives the Legislature authority to restrict that autonomy in some cases. Owens has not ruled definitively, but has indicated throughout recent challenges to abortion bans that she will define the practice as health care.

Wyoming Attorney General Deputy Jay Jerde argued that abortion isn’t health care in every instance.

“It’s not restoring a woman’s body from pain, injury or physical sickness,” said Jerde. “Medical services are involved, but getting an abortion for reasons other than health care, it can’t be a medical decision.”

Marci Bramlet, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said letting the chemical abortion ban go into effect tells women they have to get surgery to have an abortion.

“It effectively tells people you must have open-heart surgery when a stent would do,” she said.

Owens in March also blocked an imminent ban on nearly all abortions, which contained numerous carveouts pro-life legislators had crafted to mitigate the irreparable harm plaintiffs would allege against it. The injunction was a repeat of 2022, when Owens blocked the state’s trigger ban in an earlier lawsuit by the same plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs are Casper abortion clinic Wellspring Health Access, Jackson-based abortionist Dr. Gioviannina Anthony, Dr. Rene Hinkle of Cheyenne, abortion-funding group Chelsea’s Fund and two birthing age women, one of whom is a practicing Jew arguing that her faith requires her to consider abortion in some instances.

They are suing Wyoming, Teton County and the city of Jackson , asking the court to enjoin their enforcement of both the abortion ban and chemical abortion bans and to declare abortion as a health-care right under the Wyoming Constitution.

One Year Since Roe Died

Ardent Wyoming pro-life lawmaker Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, said the order is a setback, but the fight isn’t over. She also noted that the one-year anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning federal abortion-rights case Roe vs. Wade is this week, and said that’s a cause to celebrate despite the order.

“I respect the court’s decision, but I also respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” said Rodriguez-Williams.

Wellspring Health Access, conversely, rejoiced after Thursday’s hearing.

“We are grateful and relieved that medication abortion will remain legal in Wyoming. Medication abortion is safe, effective, and has been approved by the FDA for more than two decades,” reads a Thursday statement by the abortion clinic. "We are proud to provide medication abortion to patients from across the Mountain West at our Casper facility."

The majority of documented Wyoming abortions occur via pill, not surgery.

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter