It’s been a quarter-century since Wyoming voters decided, by an enormous margin, they did not want to restrict access to abortion.
For many years, state lawmakers respected that vote and defeated every anti-abortion bill offered. But in recent sessions the Legislature has started to ignore the will of the people and chip away at women’s rights to make their own reproductive choices.
Now Wyoming’s congressional delegation, whose three Republican members are all “pro-life,” are trying to change federal law through the judiciary.
Last week Sens. Mike Enzi and John Barrasso and Rep. Liz Cheney signed on to a “friend of the court” brief that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that protects a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion without excessive governmental restrictions.
When I learned about the delegation joining this federal legislative assault on women’s reproductive freedom, my thoughts immediately turned to a memorable 2011 debate in the Wyoming Legislature over an anti-abortion bill. Speaking against the measure was Rep. Lisa Shepperson, a Casper Republican.
“When I go to the doctor, it is the most private thing you can imagine,” she said. “I want myself, my husband, and I want my doctor there. And I don’t want any government.”
Then Sue Wallis, a conservative GOP representative from Recluse who died three years later, told the heart-wrenching story about how she had made the difficult decision to have an abortion. Cancer had led to complications with previous pregnancies and caused her to miscarry once. She had become pregnant shortly before separating from her allegedly abusive partner, and was facing being a single mom.
“And the thing I want to make sure you understand is that’s just one story. There’s a zillion variations out there,” Wallis said. “And we, as a state, should not be interfering with those very personal, very private [decisions].”
I also recalled reporting on the 1994 ballot initiative in Wyoming that was sponsored by a group called the “Unseen Hands Prayer Circle.” If passed, it would have prohibited abortions in Wyoming except when the mother’s life was endangered or in reported cases of rape and incest. Doctors who performed abortions under other circumstances would have faced prosecution.
The initiative was extremely divisive in the state, but not a partisan one. A grassroots campaign called “Wyoming No on No. 1” sprang up almost immediately. Republican luminaries were among the movement’s leaders: former House speaker Warren Morton and his wife Kathy, and former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Guatemala Tom Stroock and his wife Marta.
Morton argued that the proposed “Wyoming Human Life Protection Act” would place an unfair burden on women and run counter to the state’s tradition of respecting people’s privacy.
His arguments ring just as true today.
Morton said having a safe, legal abortion — the law of the land — should be available to women, particularly the young and unwed who aren’t financially capable of raising a child.
“It concerns me greatly that some young mother left with this burden is left with the possibility of life in poverty,” Morton said. “We’re probably condemning the child to a life of poverty, too.”
I can’t speak for Morton, who died in 2002 after battling Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. But like many Republicans, he was a fiscal conservative, and he probably wanted to remind his own party that no big social safety net existed for young, unmarried women with children.
The initiative failed by nearly 40,000 votes, with “no” votes comprising 60% of the total.
In a survey last year, the Pew Research Center found national support for abortion rights at 61%. Meanwhile, though some people want more restrictions on abortion and others fewer, a 2019 NPR/PBS/Marist Poll found that 77% of Americans do not want to see Roe overturned.
The brief the Wyoming delegation signed is highly partisan. It includes 39 Republican senators and 168 representatives, only two of whom are Democrats.
Despite public opposition to what they’re trying to do, these lawmakers have been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s unabashed attempt to pack the high court with anti-abortion justices.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Enzi, Barrasso and Cheney and I respect their right to voice their personal right-to-life views. However, I do not believe they are serving the majority of their Wyoming constituents and Americans overall when they plead for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe.
They are, however, in line with some of the increasingly right-wing members of the predominantly male Wyoming Legislature who want to restrict abortion access and put the government in control of a woman’s reproductive choices.
For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Legislature changed Wyoming’s abortion laws in 2017 by requiring doctors to tell women seeking abortions they are entitled to view an ultrasound of the fetus before the procedure is performed. It also passed another law to prohibit the use of tissue from aborted fetuses for experimentation.
The former brings an undue burden on women who have already made one of the most important decisions in their lives. They don’t need the state government to “help” them reconsider. The latter is needless, sparked by false news reports spread by conservative media that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue for research.
In 2019 legislators passed a bill that requires physicians to report to the state health officer personal medical information about women who have abortions performed in the state. This invasion of patient privacy was also meant to intimidate the only two abortion providers in Wyoming, who practice in Teton County. Fortunately, legislators killed a provision to make the failure to file a report a misdemeanor punishable by jail time.
I’m amazed at the laser-like aim of many lawmakers on restricting abortion rights in this state when, as pointed out by the Guttmacher Institute — a nongovernmental reproductive health organization — in-state abortion procedures are inaccessible to 96% of Wyoming women.
Another 2019 bill would have required a 48-hour waiting period for a patient in Wyoming seeking an abortion. That bill was defeated, though I’m certain it will return in some form. It would effectively punish women who must travel long distances to Teton County to obtain a legal abortion, necessitating absence from work and requiring lodging and travel expenses.
I asked Linda Burt, lobbyist for NARAL Pro-Choice Wyoming, what she makes of the trend in Wyoming to restrict abortions, including the congressional delegation’s action.
“Unfortunately, the Legislature now has more members like our congressional representatives that are much more concerned with their own personal religious beliefs than the needs of their constituents,” Burt said. “Wyoming women suffer from a lack of reproductive health care and support in overturning Roe is in direct conflict in ensuring safe and affordable care.”
“Medical care is clearly a very private issue and is not the business of the state,” Burt said. “Government officials making private medical decisions for women and families is the very definition of overreach.
“You would think anyone in Wyoming would understand that — and I think most of us do,” she added.
Wallis, Morton and Stroock, who are sadly no longer with us, understood this too. In their spirit, pro-choice allies now need to galvanize against the forces that want to take the right to a legal, safe abortion away from women. The Roe decision has never been more at risk than it is today, and it’s worth fighting for.