New law puts Wyoming at forefront of abortion pill bans

Many states effectively ban abortion pills by prohibiting abortion, but none had taken direct aim at them before Wyoming

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon gives the State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on March 2, 2021, inside the state Capitol in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon gives the State of the State address to the Wyoming Legislature on March 2, 2021, inside the state Capitol in Cheyenne, Wyoming.Michael Cummo (AP)

Wyoming has pushed to the front of state efforts to prohibit the most common type of abortion by instituting the nation’s first explicit ban on pills that terminate pregnancies. Medication abortions, which usually involve taking two prescription medications days apart at home or in a clinic, became the preferred method for ending pregnancy in the U.S. even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade — and now account for more than half of all abortions according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights.

More than a dozen states have responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling by effectively banning abortion pills through prohibitions on all forms of abortion. Fifteen states restrict access to the pills. Of those, six — Arizona, Indiana, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota and South Carolina — require a doctor to administer them in person. Arizona also bans mailing abortion pills.

But before a law signed Friday by Wyoming Republican Governor Mark Gordon, no state specifically banned abortion pills. The law passed alongside a new abortion ban that seeks to sidestep issues with an earlier state ban that’s been held up in court. With these two new abortion laws, the Wyoming Legislature is “kind of trying to cover all its bases” to prohibit abortions, said Elizabeth Nash with the Guttmacher Institute.

Gordon allowed the new broad abortion ban to take effect Sunday without his signature. Whether the abortion pill ban he signed takes effect July 1 as planned remains to be seen. It could be delayed in the courts if an abortion provider in the state sues over it. Meanwhile, a federal judge in Texas is considering a case with implications for abortion pill access nationwide

Here’s a look at where abortion stands in Wyoming and elsewhere.

Is abortion now illegal in Wyoming?

Yes. As of Sunday, abortions in all forms are illegal, although a judge in Jackson who suspended the previous ban could decide to suspend this one as well. A court hearing is set for Wednesday.

The state’s lone clinic that provided abortions until the ban is in the tourist mountain town of Jackson. Another clinic in Casper, Wellspring Health Access, was set to open last year before it was delayed by an arson; their plans to open next month are now uncertain.

Even before the ban, many women in Wyoming drove to Colorado and elsewhere to get abortions because it was more convenient. There’s no prohibition on women in Wyoming continuing to go out of state to seek abortions.

Why did Wyoming take such aggressive action?

Wyoming has long been a deeply conservative state but one that often avoided weighing in on social matters — live and let live is a credo of rural life in the West.

That’s changing. With a state Legislature more dominated by Republicans than at any point in a century, leaders are able to delve into culture-war issues with hardly any opposition.

Last year, Gordon signed an abortion ban that took effect a month after the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Within hours, Teton County District Judge Melissa Owens suspended it, ruling that a lawsuit’s claim it would harm pregnant women and their doctors could have merit.

The two nonprofits and four women, including two obstetricians, who sued also argued that the ban violated a 2012 state constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to make one’s own healthcare decisions.

Attorneys for the state said that wasn’t the intent of the amendment, which passed in response to the Affordable Care Act seeking to expand healthcare coverage nationwide.

This year, Wyoming lawmakers did an end-run around the lawsuit with a new, blanket abortion ban declaring that abortion is not healthcare and therefore is not protected by the state constitution.

What are lawmakers in other states doing?

Most Republican-controlled states adopted abortion bans or tighter restrictions in anticipation that Roe v. Wade would be overturned eventually. And last year, several Democrat-controlled states adopted protections for abortion access.

But that didn’t end the legislative battles. This month, Utah became the first state to pass a law banning abortion clinics altogether. It came as the state’s ban on abortions at all stages of pregnancies is held up by a legal challenge.

In Florida, lawmakers are trying to figure out what bans to put into place. Florida previously banned abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which is much looser than what other GOP-controlled states have done; a new measure to ban them after six weeks has been advancing through the Legislature. Governor Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 presidential candidate, is expected to sign it if it gets to him.

In South Carolina, also GOP-dominated, lawmakers are debating what kind of ban to try next after a ban on abortions after six weeks was rejected by the state’s top court.

In Minnesota, where last year’s election gave Democrats full control of the government, the governor this year signed additional protections for abortion access into law.

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