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Jared Polis, left, speaks at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, joining CEO Vicki Cowart in Denver in August. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Earlier this year, with less fanfare, Colorado lawmakers debated a bill to ban elective abortions that appears more severe than the controversial new limits approved in other states.

The Colorado measure would have allowed an abortion only if the mother’s life was at risk and offered no exceptions for rape or incest — much like the law in Alabama, the nation’s most restrictive.

But here, the legislation went much further to define the start of human life at fertlization — and even allow for the death penalty for a doctor who performs an illegal abortion.

The measure’s failure in the Democratic-led state House reaffirmed that abortion is legal and protected in Colorado — even if laws in other states lead the conservative-minded Supreme Court to reverse Roe v. Wade.

But advocates are still worried. The party-line vote shows access to an abortion its not permanently secure in Colorado, and they want to repeal a major restriction that still exists.

“We are never as far from those other states as we think we are. It’s only one election,” said Karen Middleton, the executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, an abortion rights organization.

Colorado is a place where women from other states come to receive care

The new law in Alabama, which is a near-total ban, and other laws in Georgia, Ohio and Kentucky that prohibit abortions after six weeks, make Colorado a refuge for women who are seeking the procedure. The state does not impose a waiting period, age restrictions or require ultrasounds before an abortion, like elsewhere.

Moreover, the nonprofit Women’s Freedom Fund, run by NARAL in Colorado, provided financial help to roughly 350 women seeking an abortion so far this year.

The money typically covers the cost of medical care and travel, with a quarter of women coming from outside Colorado. About 500 women were helped in 2018. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about 13,000 were conducted overall in Colorado in 2014, the most recent numbers reported.

The political atmosphere surrounding abortion influences the number of women who request assistance, and Middleton said she expects more requests after the new restrictions in other states.

“Right now, we are determining what we can do to respond,” she said. “If women are coming here, we will help them.”

Vicki Cowart, the CEO at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, says about 10 percent of the patients in her organization’s health clinics come from outside the state, most of them from Texas. In some cases, Colorado doctors even consult with women in other states through a secure video chat and send pills to perform a medical abortion to patients’ homes.

“When a person comes to our health centers they are our patient, we don’t care where they live,” said Cowart, who also is expecting an uptick in visits in the coming months.

Democrats want to repeal major abortion restriction from constitution

Even if Colorado’s laws provide more acces than other states, one significant restriction still exisits here: The constitution prohibits the use of state dollars to fund most elective abortions.

The voter-led initiative won approval in 1984 by less than 10,000 votes, or 0.8%. And it means the insurance provided to state employees cannot cover abortions unless they are medically necessary to save the woman’s life.

At the end of the legislative session earlier this month, abortion rights advocates expressed disappointment that the General Assembly — with Demoratic majorities in the House and Senate — didn’t consider any legislation to refer a question to the ballot for the repeal of the 1984 amendment. The advocates also wanted lawmakers to mandate that private and public insurers cover certain forms of contraception.

“I think they weren’t interested in the fight when they had bigger agenda items,” said NARAL’s Middleton.

MORE: Abortion is a key issue in Colorado’s 2018 campaigns — but it sounds different this time

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat and leading advocate on the issue, said lawmakers worked on a bill all session but never came to a consensus on how to proceed. She declined to elaborate on the policies under consideration, but she said the goal was to protect access to an abortion in Colorado.

“I don’t think the issue was ever gone here. I think we’ve been aware of the risks,” she said, referring to President Donald Trump and the Supreme Court. “We’ve been talking about it nonstop.”

The discussions about a repeal the 1984 ban on state dollars for abortions appear more serious than in prior years and advocates are eyeing the 2020 ballot for a potential referendum.

It’s one point of discussion as Gov. Jared Polis begins a new partnership with NARAL and the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights. The organizations said the collaboration is designed to provide access to reproductive health services for all women, regardless of income, age, insurance or immigration status. A Polis spokeswoman said the discussions are preliminary and declined to offer any details on what the governor supports.

But in a statement, spokeswoman Shelby Wieman called the Alabama law “an existential threat to our personal freedom,” and she said Polis “will always defend a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.”

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Colorado GOP will continue to push Alabama-styled law

The governor’s new effort won’t deter Republican lawmakers in Colorado from pushing forward more legislation to limit abortions.

State Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, sponsored House Bill 1103 earlier this year to impose restrictions greater than the ones in Alabama.

The Alabama law applies to “an unborn child in utero,” which experts consider a step down the line from fertilization, as stated in the Colorado bill.

The potential punishments for Alabama doctors who perform an illegal abortion include a life sentence or 10 to 99 years in prison. The Colorado bill called for life in prison or the death penalty.

“It’s one of those seminal issues, where you are always a person no matter what time you were formed,” Saine said. “And any time the government can make that distinction about who is and what is a person, we have some pretty bad consequences.”

She expects the measure to return in the 2020 legislative session. “We believe this is a murdering of a human being,” she said. “And I think the conversation nationally does seem to be shifting our way.”

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.