It takes a special kind of cluelessness for an elected official to post a fire graphic on Facebook under an article about a Casper abortion clinic opening after someone tried to burn it down.
That’s the most generous reason for such baffling action I can offer. A much more disturbing explanation is that it’s a menacing call from the mayor for more violence in his city.
Bruce Knell, Casper’s anti-abortion mayor, recently denied the latter. It wasn’t an endorsement of arson, he said. Rather, it was a reminder to his neighbors and constituents that they are going to hell “for eternity.”
“By killing babies, you’re opening yourself up for a chance to go to hell,” Knell told the Casper Star-Tribune. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me saying that whatsoever.”
Wellspring Health Access Clinic in Casper is one of six plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state of Wyoming’s latest abortion ban that has resulted in the law being temporarily on hold. A trial is scheduled for later this year.
Last summer the clinic planned to become the state’s second practice providing abortions, along with the well-established Women’s Health and Care Clinic in Jackson, but in May an arsonist torched the interior before the building was completed. The estimated damage was $290,000.
Unbelievably, Knell said he never thought that the fire gif he posted could be tied to the widely publicized arson case, which resulted in the arrest of 22-year-old Lorna Roxanne Green of Casper, who is being tried in federal court. If convicted, she faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“Not at all, the thought never entered my mind,” Knell said. “… I typed in ‘hell fire’ and literally picked [an image].”
I don’t know how the campfire gif Knell posted is supposed to substitute for the eternal damnation he thinks awaits pro-choice Wyomingites, but he claimed that’s what he wanted to convey. Knell immediately contradicted himself when he added, “I don’t condemn them for it. That’s between them and God.”
“That the mayor of the very city in which our clinic was burned down would share such an incendiary and violent post, on the very day that we finally announced we’re open to patients, is extremely disappointing and disheartening,” Wellspring President and founder Julie Burkhart told the Star-Tribune. “Anti-abortion violence is real and ongoing, and for the mayor of Casper to trivialize that, let alone tactically endorse it, is unconscionable.”
Burkhart vowed that Wellspring “will not be bullied out of our mission, no matter by whom.”
Knell countered that for a Christian man, to say nothing about abortion is “inappropriate.” But Knell wants us to know he has love in his heart for the sinners: “We still have to love each other, and we still have to take care of each other and listen to each other.”
Listen, maybe, but make no mistake, there is no two-sided conversation between the mayor and his constituents; it’s his way or hell. “I can promise you in conservative Wyoming, there are more people who share my view,” the mayor told the Star-Tribune.
Actually, the data suggest Knell’s wrong about that too. In 1992, Wyoming voters overwhelmingly rejected a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. In 2012, voters amended the Wyoming Constitution to enshrine that “Each competent adult shall have the right to make his or her own health care decisions.”
Last October a University of Wyoming poll found 36% of respondents consider abortion a matter of personal choice, and a like percentage said abortion should be allowed in cases of incest, rape, and if the life of the mother is in danger. Only 7% said there should be a total abortion ban.
Wellspring will offer both surgical and medication abortions, making it the only surgical abortion provider in the state. It will also provide women’s healthcare, OB-GYN services, family planning, and gender-affirming healthcare.
The clinic is a godsend to women in central and eastern Wyoming. Its relative proximity to Wyoming’s population centers means women will be able to access care without the days of travel, lodging and time away from work and family that are often currently required.
Knell isn’t the only Wyoming politician who can’t stand the idea of Wellspring finally opening. It’s been especially galling for legislators who spearheaded the 2022 “trigger law” that banned abortion in Wyoming as soon as the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
That ban was halted by litigation immediately filed by the Jackson and Wellspring clinics and four other plaintiffs. More than nine months before that case went to trial, though, the Legislature decided to pass a different, even more restrictive, abortion ban, the “Life Is a Human Right Act,” along with the nation’s first ban specific to medication abortions.
The near total new ban came partly from grandstanding lawmakers trying to establish their right-of-Ghengis-Khan pedigree and partly from a recognition that the original ban probably wasn’t going to pass the constitution sniff test. Trying to sidestep the 2012 constitutional amendment and make the new ban more legally defensible, its authors included language declaring “abortion isn’t healthcare.”
Ninth District Court Judge Melissa Owens has already made short work of that shoddy bit of lawmaking. “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,” she wrote in explaining her decision to grant a restraining order against the ban.
The new law also declares that “life begins at conception,” a scientifically refuted belief which plaintiffs note is distinct to certain Christian denominations, but not shared by many Christians, Jews or Muslims.
The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe was not based on any view about if and when a fetus is entitled to any of the rights enjoyed after birth.
Knell said he doesn’t plan to run for re-election after his city council term expires in 2025. His elected position is irrelevant anyway, he naively maintains. He may be mayor, the argument goes, but he’s also a private citizen, and as such he need not consider the consequences of exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
That’s a dangerous and increasingly popular position in far-right circles.
When public officials like Knell call pro-choice advocates murderers or baby killers and condemn them to hell they are stoking rage and implicitly condoning vigilantism. That rage can be transformed into crimes like arson and murder.
Burkhart knows first-hand how community leaders’ attitudes can shape public opinion. “I’ve lived and experienced the real-world costs of this kind of anti-abortion rhetoric,” Burkhart wrote in a statement. “Fourteen years ago, after years of harassment, my former boss, Dr. George Tiller, was assassinated in church.”
Burkhart picked up Tiller’s mantle as an abortion provider, and led the effort to reopen Tiller’s Wichita, Kansas clinic and build new ones in Oklahoma, Washington state, and most recently in Wyoming.
In a 2019 article in The Guardian, Burkhart noted how the anti-abortion movement changed when former President Donald Trump took up the attack. “Anti-choice folks don’t have to march in the streets any more and blockade clinics,” she said. “They have worked their way into our state legislatures, Congress, courtrooms, and our White House.”
Burkhart told the British publication Trump lacks “the religious zeal” that drives many extremists. “[But] Trump could definitely trigger the person who thinks, ‘I’ve got to take matters into my own hands,’” she said. “Language has meaning. Words are important.”
Last Saturday, Trump lied to an Iowa evangelical group, claiming Democratic politicians support the practice of “even executing babies after birth.”
Some far-right politicians are guilty of not choosing their words about abortion wisely. Others deliberately employ rhetoric designed to outrage.
I don’t know which camp Knell belongs to, but I do know he’s playing with fire.