Wyoming A Step Closer To Requiring Abortion Clinics To Be Licensed

Supporters of a bill requiring abortion clinics to be licensed in Wyoming say its purpose is to protect the health of women, detractors say it’s a ploy to restrict abortion more.

Leo Wolfson

February 20, 20246 min read

The House Judiciary Committee discuses House Bill 148, Regulation of Surgical Abortions, during a meeting Monday at the state Capitol in Cheyenne.
The House Judiciary Committee discuses House Bill 148, Regulation of Surgical Abortions, during a meeting Monday at the state Capitol in Cheyenne. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

There are two main streams of thought when it comes to requiring surgical abortion clinics in Wyoming to be licensed by the state.

House Bill 148 would require licensure to make sure women are safe as long as abortion is legal in Wyoming, said state Rep. Martha Lawley, R-Worland, who sponsored the bill.

“That is my genuine intent,” she told Cowboy State Daily.

Those who oppose the bill, like Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, say it's being used as a backdoor channel to further restrict and cut away at abortion rights in Wyoming.

Provenza said if abortion is outlawed in the Cowboy State, women will simply travel elsewhere to get an abortion “or be forced to take matters into their own hands.”

“Let’s be honest about what we’re doing here,” Provenza said during a discussion on the bill Monday in the House Judiciary Committee. “This bill is attempting to regulate reproductive health care so it’s inaccessible entirely.”

She said Wyoming should address the legality of abortion with a constitutional amendment through a ballot initiative.

Post-Roe Era

When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal law legalizing abortion in its 2022 Dobbs decision, it set the ball in motion for abortion to be regulated by states. Lawley sees her bill as establishing that regulation, for abortion clinics, which she believes are virtually unregulated in Wyoming.

“It’s unusual that we don’t have regulation of abortion in Wyoming,” she said. “They’re sort of outside of how basic procedures of that kind, how they’re regulated.”

Abortion is still fully legal in Wyoming despite two laws passing last year that restrict the practice in most circumstances. That’s because the constitutionality of the laws is being litigated at the district court level, and after a decision is made at that level, the case will almost certainly move on to the Wyoming Supreme Court level.

As passed 7-2 on Monday, Lawley’s bill would classify surgical abortion clinics in Wyoming as ambulatory surgical centers and under the Wyoming Department of Health’s oversight for licensing them and their physicians.

Reps. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, Art Washut, R-Casper, Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, Mark Jennings, R-Sheridan, Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, Tony Niemiec, R-Green River, Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, voted to support the bill. Provenza and Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, voted against.

There is only one active surgical abortion clinic in Wyoming, the Wellspring Health Access Clinic in Casper. Because it’s the only abortion clinics that would need to be licensed and inspected, the agency is not asking for a budget increase in the event HB 148 passes.

Rep. Martha Lawley, R-Worland, supports the Parental Rights In Education Act.
Rep. Martha Lawley, R-Worland, supports the Parental Rights In Education Act. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Will Change Things

Julie Burkhart, president of Wellspring Health Access, spoke against HB 148 via Zoom on Monday, saying it will make it more difficult for her clinic to operate. She said similar measures have been brought in other states in what she sees as attempts to curtail abortion access that will not improve patient care.

“For those who are unsure about the origin and intent of this bill, please make no mistake — the sole purpose of the bill is to further limit the number of abortions,” Burkhart said. “Thus, restricting health care to people with punitive, detrimental measures that increase cost and restrict health care options.”

Specifically, Burkhart said the license requirements would require her facility to expand hallways, alter the dimensions of procedure rooms and reconfigure its janitorial setup. She also expressed concern that it would make it harder for OB-GYN facilities to set up in Wyoming. In the last few years, four of these clinics have closed in the Cowboy State.

Stefan Johansson, director of the Department of Health, said both of these concerns are accurate and that although not all OB-GYN facilities offer abortions, all would be considered ambulatory surgical centers under the new regulation the bill creates.

Another feature of the bill states that no person shall perform a surgical abortion in Wyoming who is not a licensed physician with admitting privileges at a hospital located no more than 10 miles from the abortion clinic. Current law for other surgical procedures in Wyoming is 50 miles.

Burkhart said this opens up a Pandora's box for potential political problems between local hospitals and abortion clinics that will make it harder to find physicians who can work at abortion clinics because hospitals may be reluctant to grant privileges, knowing the political and public pushback they may receive.

Pro-Lifers Not Convinced

Lawley told Cowboy State Daily she doesn’t understand these arguments and believes her bill brings abortion practitioners to the same level of scrutiny as other medical providers in the state.

“I’m very confused how on one hand they can tell us how safe and great they’re doing, but on the other will fight so hard against common sense typical of this kind of procedure regulation,” she said.

Rodriguez-Williams is one of the most vocal pro-life supporters in the Legislature and the lead sponsor on one of the two abortion bills that passed in 2023.

On Monday, she spoke in favor of HB 148 and sharply questioned Burkhart about the mission of her clinic and whether her staff take the Hippocratic Oath, a commitment to preserve the well-being of their patients.

Rodriguez-Williams unsuccessfully attempted to pass an amendment that would have increased the misdemeanor fine associated with violating the bill from $1,000 to $5,000.

The bill already has a minimum associated penalty of at least one year in prison.

An amendment passed to increase the length of time between physical inspections of surgical abortion facilities from one year to three years, in alignment with other ambulatory surgical centers in Wyoming.

Provenza and other opponents of HB 148 criticized the bill for what they see as its acknowledgement that abortion is considered health care in Wyoming.

Rodriguez-Williams cued into this concern, suggesting an amendment clarifying that the bill does not support the premise that abortion is health care in Wyoming, the crux of the debate behind the ongoing court battles on the legality of abortion. Since she did not have a location in the bill prepared to put this statement, the amendment was not considered.

Fatalities Determine Risk?

Provenza also mentioned data showing that 0.7 women per 100,000 die as a result of having an abortion, a lower rate than colonoscopies.

Lawley and other supporters of her bill said fatalities aren’t the only metric by which women’s health and safety should be considered in the use abortion clinics.

“Using mortality as the standard to regulate health and safety in the medical world, frankly, that seems preposterous to me,” Lawley said.

Burkhart said 2.5% of abortions result in minor complications for the patient and less than 0.5% require additional surgical procedures or additional hospitalization for them.

HB 148 is the only abortion bill remaining in this year's legislative session as the other three failed to receive an introductory vote.

Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, during Monday's House Judiciary Committee meeting.
Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, during Monday's House Judiciary Committee meeting. (Matt Idler for Cowboy State Daily)

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter