Judge Owens sits behind the bench at the courthouse
In the 9th District Court Judge Melissa Owens listens to the plaintiffs as they request a temporary restraining order on the law that would ban medical abortions starting July 1. Owens granted the TRO, halting the law from taking effect. (Kathryn Ziesig/Jackson Hole News & Guide)

JACKSON—9th District Court Judge Melissa Owens granted a temporary restraining order against enforcing Wyoming’s medication abortion ban Thursday, leaving all abortions legal in the state — for the time being.

Without this court action, the ban would have gone into effect next month. 

“I was really nervous about the medication abortion ban going into effect July 1 because it just has a profound effect on practice in general, and I would say OB-GYN practice throughout the state,” said plaintiff Dr. Giovannina Anthony, who works for Women’s Health and Family Care. “And I’m also impressed that the judge doesn’t seem to be convinced that these abortion bans are constitutional.”

Anthony’s Jackson clinic offers medication but not surgical abortions, meaning the ban would have effectively shuttered that aspect of the practice. The only other practice in the state offering abortions is the recently-opened Wellspring Health Access in Casper, which offers surgical and medication-induced procedures. That clinic is also a plaintiff in the suit.

“We are grateful and relieved that medication abortion will remain legal in Wyoming,” Wellspring’s President Julie Burkhart said in a statement. “Medication abortion is safe, effective, and has been approved by the FDA for more than two decades. Abortion pills account for more than half of all abortions in the United States and we are proud to provide medication abortion to patients from across the Mountain West at our Casper facility.”

Both of the clinics also offer a range of other health services, including OB-GYN and health screenings. 

The history

The Legislature passed two abortion bans earlier this year: a near-total ban and a medication abortion ban.

Gov. Mark Gordon let the near-total ban go into effect without his signature,  citing possible constitutionality concerns, but did sign the medication ban. 

“I believe that all life is sacred and that every individual, including the unborn, should be treated with dignity and compassion,” he wrote. “I believe in family, and in the rights of parents.”

Passing the new laws could further delay resolution of whether an abortion ban could be legal, Gordon added. The Wyoming Constitution grants residents a right to make healthcare decisions. 

“I’m happy to tell the women of this state that right now their rights are intact — for now.”

Dr. Giovannina Anthony

The near-total ban, called the Life is a Human Right Act, was set to go into effect immediately. However, those suing the state over the ban — including health care professionals and women — requested a temporary restraining order on it March 17, which was granted on March 22. 

Among other points, the state has argued that abortion is not health care, and as such, the ban does not violate the constitutional right to make one’s own health care decision. 

“The Court cannot find that a procedure that requires medical expertise, the prescription of medications and drugs, the use of reasonable medical judgment, which must also include medical opinions on the health of the pregnant woman and the fetus, is not a health care procedure,” Owens wrote in April.

The same plaintiffs requested in May that enforcement of the medication abortion ban be similarly delayed. 

Who said what

Much of Thursday’s debate rehashed arguments already laid out in the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ filings, which range from whether abortion is health care to whether abortion is “one’s own” decision to make. 

Beyond that, there were many technical arguments over what legal standards the judge should use and what evidence should inform her decision.

Ultimately, Owens found the plaintiff’s arguments more compelling. 

“​​I do at this juncture find that the plaintiffs have met their burden to have the temporary restraining order entered,” she said. “They have clearly shown probable success on the merits and that at least some of the plaintiffs will suffer possible irreparable injury, and therefore, effective today, I can enter the TRO, which would prevent the chemical abortions prohibitive law from going into effect July 1, 2023.”

What’s next?

Just because there are temporary restraining orders on Wyoming’s two abortion bans doesn’t mean they won’t go into effect at a later date. 

These orders occur when litigants convince a judge that they will likely win the lawsuit — proving the abortion bans are unconstitutional in this case — and that they risk irreparable injury if the laws go into effect in the meantime. 

That doesn’t mean they will succeed in their lawsuit, and the laws could go into effect if, after considering all of the arguments and evidence, the court deems them legal. Even if the plaintiffs do succeed at the district court level in Jackson next April, this particular suit is expected to be kicked up to the Wyoming Supreme Court for a final ruling. 

What’s left is still a tenuous picture for abortion legality in Wyoming. 

The bigger picture

June 24 is the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which effectively overturned Roe v. Wade and left abortion regulation up to individual states. 

Since that time, Wyoming’s abortion bans have been tangled up in court, largely leaving the procedure legal. In the meantime, Wellspring Health Access, a second Wyoming medical practice offering abortions, and the only to offer surgical abortions, opened in Casper. 

Since the Dobbs decision, Planned Parenthood has seen fewer Wyoming patients migrating out of state to their clinics for the procedure, the organization stated. However, they have seen an increase in Wyomingites requesting abortions past 22 weeks of pregnancy. 

Planned Parenthood has seen an increase in people coming to them from states where abortion bans have been enacted across the Mountain West, though.

“The number of patients coming for abortion care from out of state has doubled,” Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains states. “To meet the unprecedented demand, PPRM has added approximately 20% more staff, increased hours at its health centers and expanded telehealth. ”  

Wait times have also increased, according to PPRM, at one point reaching an average of 15 days for all appointments and 28 days for abortion appointments.

There have also been concerns that in rural areas, where it’s already hard to attract OB-GYNs and women’s health professionals, instituting abortion bans will make those services harder to maintain.

Already, one hospital in Idaho has ended obstetric services after that state’s ban went into place, partially due to the law criminalizing the procedure and loss of staff resulting from the ban.

For Dr. Anthony at Women’s Health and Family Care clinic in Jackson, she said advocates will simply have to keep monitoring the entire landscape of abortion laws in the region, including ongoing federal lawsuits over mifepristone, a drug used to induce abortions. 

“I have to take so much time to follow all of this just in our state, and the patients and the women of the state have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “The education part of it is a bit of a burden, but I’m happy to tell the women of this state that right now their rights are intact — for now.”

Madelyn Beck reports from Laramie on health and public safety. Before working with WyoFile, she was a public radio journalist reporting for NPR stations across the Mountain West, covering regional issues...

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  1. Whether to have or not have a baby should be left up to the woman involved. It is her body, mind and future that is involved.

  2. And the debate continues… The only person that should have the right to choose what happens to her body is her with the body. Not government, no one else. If she chooses to consult, great. But maintaining her right to choose is a basic freedom. I respect a woman’s right to choose.

  3. Wyoming has a long list of womans rights including the first female Governer in the U.S., first female to serve on a jury in the US, first female Justice of the Peace in the U.S., the first female Ballif in the U.S., and the first state to allow females to vote. We should work on keeping Planned Parenthood open and allow females the right to their own health decisions.

  4. At least some minor relief in a state that prefers to live in the 16th Century and worship its livestock farmers.

  5. It is a bit distressing to hear these activists brag about preserving the women’s rights, while ignoring the rights of the unborn to remain alive. What about their medical rights? But that is how elitism is defined.

    1. The beauty about the Constitution is that you have no right to ask whether I am pregnant or not. It is not a neighborly question to ask therefore the power of the state should not be behind the asking.

      The SCOTUS was wrong, Governor Gordon is wrong and so is everyone who thinks they have the right to look in a womb for a citizen, clearly has not read or understood our founding document.

  6. The Judge is doing a terrific job of protecting the Constitutional Rights of Wyomingites. Good for her!

    1. Exclusive of the unborn wyomingites. As one sage reminded all, we will never know why we lived in such chaotic times but surely it is due to society’s loss of the many great leaders, musicians, poets, doctors, mothers, fathers to the evangelical lure of abortion. Is it worth the profits seen by these industrialists? Ask any woman who has had an abortion in years gone by-how do you really feel? Would you do it again? The truth when spoken, protects the rights of the alive but unborn. Their right to live is the question, not the woman’s loss of control of her body, which happened at the time of conception. Her loss of control is worth debating but should not be resolved by denying the child’s right to continue its life.

      1. I’ve never known a woman that regrets having an abortion. That assertion is another diversion from reality.

      2. So, if a woman gives an answer that you don’t like, you disregard it, under the illusion that she will change her mind? How condescending, not mention “all knowing…”

        I have no memories before the age of two and had to be fed and coddled like any other baby, and I have no memories whatsoever of the eons before that.

        1. 70% of the population believes abortion, to some extent, should be legal and available. The religious zealots are incapable of believing truth. They substitute their “faith” for facts. It’s exhausting…

      3. So well said, this really is the heart of the matter: is the unborn child’s life’s value really so much less than the value of the adult’s will at conception? Much more, is the regret or fear afterward worth ending a literal lifetime of joys and challenges, love and care, especially given the many safety nets available in our modern society?

      4. As a counselor of 30 yrs, I have NEVER had a female client regret having had an abortion. It has been generally a painful, but well thought out decision process. Abortion is a medical decision EVERY woman should have a right to choose.