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Opinion: How one Colorado anti-abortion ballot initiative could affect pregnant people in over 30 states

New data show Colorado law would force women to drive 30 times farther to reach an abortion clinic that can provide care later in pregnancy

With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the prospect of an even more conservative Supreme Court, abortion rights in many states are in extreme peril. But even before the next big abortion case is argued before the court, dangerous policies are already in motion.

Right now, looming in Colorado, there is a deceptive anti-abortion ballot initiative with potential to dramatically impair the ability to get abortion care, both for Coloradans and people across the country.

We’ve seen many highs and lows in our nearly 40 years of combined work in the field of reproductive health, but one thing has remained constant: the anti-abortion movement’s ultimate goal continues to be banning abortion outright, at any point during pregnancy and for any reason.

At the same time, anti-abortion activists and politicians go to great lengths to hide their true agenda by going after just one element of abortion at a time.

Liza Fuentes and Elizabeth Nash

That exact pattern is playing out in Colorado, where a ballot initiative would ban abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy.

This is straight from the anti-abortion playbook — vilifying abortion later in pregnancy through shaming rhetoric and outright lies, and then using that ban as a stepping-stone for additional restrictions, including banning abortion earlier and earlier in pregnancy.

New data from the Guttmacher Institute show just severe the consequences would be. There are 1.2 million women in Colorado aged 15-44 (considered “reproductive age”) and the immediate impact of a 22-week ban on them and their families would be profound.

The average one-way driving distance for a Colorado woman of reproductive age to a clinic that could provide later abortion care would increase from 15 miles to 445 miles — a stunning 430-mile increase, or almost 30 times farther.

Moreover, under a ban, 100% of Colorado women of reproductive age would have to travel at least 300 miles — again, one-way — to reach the nearest clinic providing abortion care later in pregnancy. And four out of every five Colorado women would have to travel at least 400 miles each way to reach the nearest clinic providing abortion care later in pregnancy

It doesn’t stop there. Banning later abortion in Colorado would affect people in surrounding states, most of which are hostile to abortion rights, who would no longer be able to seek care in Colorado.

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Last year, the Colorado Department of Health reported that 11% of abortions provided in the state were for patients who traveled from more than 30 states, many overcoming enormous logistical barriers and politically motivated restrictions in their home states.

As is the case with all abortion restrictions, the harm of radically increased travel distances and related logistics would fall hardest on those already facing oppression in various ways — whether it’s because of their income, young age, disability, immigration status or because they are Black, Indigenous or other people of color.

There are so many reasons, often complex and interwoven, why someone may need an abortion later in pregnancy. It could be because of a prenatal diagnosis of fetal anomalies, which often can’t be diagnosed until later in pregnancy.

Or it could be because of an inability to overcome burdensome state restrictions, not finding out about the pregnancy early enough, or lack of money, resources, ability to travel to a provider, finding childcare and taking time off work.

But 22-week bans ignore this and are instead marketed, without evidence, to make people who need abortions later in pregnancy, and those who provide compassionate care, appear callous and selfish.

At the core of this slander is the false claim that most abortions later in pregnancy are obtained flippantly, without need, thought or consideration. This is an outrageous lie, and anyone who’s had to make health care decisions about their pregnancy — or loves someone who has — knows it.

The vast majority of abortions happen well before 21 weeks; 88.3% of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks and 98.7% occur before 21 weeks. There is a lack of scientific literature breaking down the proportion of later abortions that are due to pre-natal diagnosis. However, what we do know from research is that people who are denied abortions have worse health outcomes, along with other negative impacts.

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The truth is that pregnancy is complicated. Some people need and get abortions later in pregnancy — for a lot of different reasons — and they deserve safe and compassionate care.

Unfortunately, they and their often-complex situations are ruthlessly weaponized by anti-abortion politicians to further a coercive ideological agenda that has nothing to do with the well-being of pregnant people.

We must see later abortion bans, like the ballot initiative in Colorado, as the Trojan horses they are — serving the single-minded pursuit of a coercive anti-abortion agenda that has nothing to do with health care, and everything to do with control.


Dr. Liza Fuentes is a Senior Research Scientist and Elizabeth Nash is Acting Associate Director for State Policy with the Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization dedicated to advancing sexual and reproductive health in the United States and globally.


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