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Colorado’s largest abortion rights group splits from national organization to refocus on state-level battles

NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado says it wants to solidify the state as a stronghold for abortion rights amidst challenges to Roe v. Wade and restrictions elsewhere

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Colorado’s leading reproductive rights organization — NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado — is splitting with its national affiliate in order to solidify the state as a stronghold for abortion rights while many other Middle America states are enacting restrictions. 

The state organization, which manages a “freedom fund” to pay for abortions, is changing its name to Cobalt — after the silvery-blue element similar to nickel. “It’s fundamental. It’s powerful. It says we are here and we are not going anywhere,” said Karen Middleton, president of the organization for the last six years. 

As the first state to legalize abortion, in 1967, Colorado has few restrictions and is considered somewhat of a stand-alone in a swath of states between Chicago and Los Angeles. People come to Colorado for abortions from neighboring states and the South, which has much stricter laws limiting abortion, particularly later in pregnancy, Middleton said. 

ABORTION TRENDS

The abortion rate is declining in Colorado and nationwide. There was a 10% drop in the abortion rate in this state from 2014 to 2017 — that is 12.1 abortions per 1,000 women in 2014, compared with 10.9 abortions per 1,000 women in 2017.

Nationally, the rate dropped to 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women age 15-44 in 2017, according to the Guttmacher Institute. This is the lowest rate on record since abortion was legalized in 1973. Most abortions — 95% — occurred in clinics, while 5% occured in doctor’s offices or hospitals.

Women in their 20s accounted for the majority of abortions in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 91% of abortions occured at 13 weeks or earlier.

At the heart of the concern is that the U.S. Supreme Court could strike down Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States in 1973. If the law is overturned, several states — including some bordering and near Colorado — likely would outlaw abortion, Middleton said.

“There is an increased need to be ready if people need to travel to our state if they are unable to acces abortion care in their state,” she said Wednesday. “There are states around us that have a trigger law that would ban abortion outright.” 

The Colorado organization has been financially self-sufficient for years, Middleton said, but noted that with the split, the group can no longer apply for grant funds available through NARAL Pro-Choice America. The Colorado chapter has been supported by $1.5 million annually in donations from individuals and family foundations, and the local affiliate did not have to share those with the national chapter.

The split is more about putting the group’s sole focus on Colorado, which has less restrictive laws on abortion than Roe v. Wade, Middleton said. 

The national group is focused on federal law and policy, and recently named other top priorities besides abortion rights: ending pregnancy discrimination and supporting paid family leave. The goals are laudable, Middleton said, but they are third-tier issues for Cobalt because other Colorado organizations have made them top priority. 

Cobalt’s main goal is to advance abortion access, she said.  “Everything we do is going to be in that lane, without distraction,” she said.

The “Freedom Fund” was started by First Universalist Church of Denver in 1984, the year Colorado voters ended Medicaid funding for abortions, and was taken over by NARAL of Colorado in December 2017. The fund spent $225,000 last year, up from $60,000 when it was run by the church, and has helped 1,993 people since 2018. 

Of those people in 2018, about 11% were from out of state and received money to pay for an abortion in Colorado, as well as gas cards and other travel expenses if needed.

NARAL Pro-Choice America congratulated the Colorado organization in an emailed statement to The Colorado Sun, noting that U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, is on their radar. “We look forward to partnering with them to advance reproductive freedom in Colorado, knowing how much is at stake for women and families in the state, especially with Sen. Cory Gardner up for re-election,” said Adrienne Kimmell, chief research and communications officer. 

Rep. Meg Froelich, a Democrat from the Denver suburbs who once served as NARAL Colorado’s interim director, said the move makes sense under the current landscape. 

“The states have been for a while and will continue to be the battleground for reproductive rights,” she said. “I think it’s an exciting opportunity. It really does put the focus back here.”

Froelich said she would like to see Colorado reverse a 1984 decision that prohibited state funding for abortion services. Cobalt shares that goal, and Middleton said Cobalt has its sights on a future ballot initiative. 

Coloradans could vote on a proposed ballot measure this year to restrict abortion in later pregnancy. The Due Date Too Late campaign is working to pass Initiative 120, which would prohibit abortions after 22 weeks, except when a mother’s life is at risk. 

The campaign is still in its signature-gathering phase and has until March 4 to turn in 124,632 signatures.

MORE: Community health clinics are barred under a federal gag rule from helping women find an abortion. Here’s what they must say instead.

In the four decades since Roe v. Wade, states have enacted 1,074 laws restricting abortion — and 288 of them just in the past decade, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the number of abortions and abortion-related legislation nationwide. 

The restrictions limit access to medications needed for abortion without surgery, and the window in which an individual is allowed to get an abortion — from bans on later-term abortions to just after a heartbeat is detected. State laws also have restricted private insurance from covering abortion and have required parental notification or patient counseling. 

Last year, the Trump Administration enacted the so-called “gag rule,” which prohibits health clinics from referring patients for an abortion. Clinics that do risk forfeiting federal funding. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has said it will hear an abortion case in March on Louisiana’s Unsafe Abortion Protection Act, a 2015 law that says doctors must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles in order to provide abortions. Advocates said the law — which was blocked by a federal judge — would leave only one doctor allowed to perform abortions in the entire state.

Colorado’s entry on reproductiverights.org’s “What if Roe Fell?” map. (click to visit the site)

More than 200 members of Congress, in an amicus brief, urged the court to reconsider Roe v. Wade when they take up the Louisiana case. The nation’s highest court has a conversative majority, with two Trump appointees — Neil Gorsuch, who is from Colorado, and Brett Kavanaugh.

If Roe v. Wade were to fall, most of the South and parts of the Southwest and Midwest would align with any new federal law outlawing abortion, according to the National Center on Reproductive Rights, based in New York. Those are states that had banned abortion prior to the federal ruling that legalized abortion in 1973.

Colorado is among the states likely to continue to allow abortion because it has few laws restricting abortion, according to the national center. Still, it rated Colorado as “unprotected,” because the courts here have not determined whether the state Constitution protects the right to have an abortion.

States with court rulings and Constitutional protection for abortion — meaning they likely would not ban abortion if Roe fell — include California, New York, Montana, Kansas, Minesota, New Jersey and Maine.

The 1967 law first legalizing abortion in Colorado, championed by then-state Rep. Dick Lamm, allowed abortion in cases of rape or incest, or if the mother’s health was threatened. In the years since it has since been greatly expanded. Now Colorado is one of few states with no time restrictions on abortion.

NARAL of Colorado originally began as the Colorado Association for the Study of Abortion after the 1967 law. It joined the national affiliate in the 1980s.

This story was updated at 7:40 p.m. on Jan. 22, 2020, to properly attribute a quote from NARAL Pro-Choice America.


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