The future site of the Wellspring Wyoming Health Access clinic is a residential-style building sandwiched between a gas station and a small apartment house near downtown Casper, Wyoming.(Arielle Zionts | Kaiser Health News)
Police suspect arson was behind a fire that damaged a clinic under construction in Casper that would become Wyoming’s sole site for procedural abortions.
A caller phoned 911 shortly before dawn Wednesday to report seeing someone with a gas can running away from the building near downtown Casper. Smoke billowed from the building’s windows by the time authorities arrived, Casper police said.
The facility appears to have internal damage, one of its organizers said later Wednesday. Wellspring Health Access, the nonprofit developing the clinic, plans to make repairs. But founder Julie Burkhart said whether the clinic will open on schedule in June is unclear.
“I’m just really sad and angry that people would take it upon themselves to try to shut us down this way,” Burkhart said, speaking by phone from outside the building.
Even before the fire, the clinic’s future was unclear. Wellspring is moving forward with its plan despite an imminent U.S. Supreme Court decision expected to reverse constitutional protections for abortion rights provided by the landmark 1973 case Roe vs. Wade. A recently enacted “trigger law” in Wyoming would take effect days after such a ruling, banning most abortions in the state.
Burkhart said Wednesday that she’s glad no one was hurt by the fire.
She said the building contains some furniture, exam tables, and medical equipment. She suspects the inside of the building has fire and smoke damage, since the walls appeared blackened.
Bob Brechtel, who has helped organize anti-abortion prayer vigils outside the Casper site, condemned the suspected arson.
“We’re really sorry that this thing happened,” said Brechtel, who previously served as a Republican state legislator. “Something like this is of no help to us or anybody else. Damaging somebody else’s property will not fix anything, so we certainly would not condone it in any respect.”
Brechtel said people who attend the weekly vigils are asked to sign a document promising to be peaceful and to allow people access to the facility.
Burkhart said local police and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were at the scene Wednesday. She hopes the clinic’s surveillance cameras captured images of the suspected arsonist.
Casper police spokesperson Rebekah Ladd said investigators are examining footage from the cameras. If they find clear images of the suspect, they will ask the public to help identify the person.
Wyoming’s only other clinic that offers abortions is in Jackson — a five-hour drive to the west — and it offers only medication abortions up to 10 weeks of gestation.
The new Casper clinic plans to offer medication and procedural abortions. It would become the nearest place to get an abortion for many people in what the nonprofit’s founders describe as an “abortion desert,” stretching from eastern Wyoming into western Nebraska and South Dakota.
This is not the first time clinics that offer abortions have been targeted. A Planned Parenthood clinic in Tennessee was destroyed in an intentional fire on New Year’s Eve. Years earlier, the man behind the fatal bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics also bombed two clinics that provided abortions.
Meanwhile, an anti-abortion group’s office in Wisconsin was recently targeted with Molotov cocktails. An abortion-rights group has claimed responsibility, but police have made no arrests.
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