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A Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The number of women receiving financial help from a Colorado fund that pays for abortions is climbing as other states continue to enact abortion restrictions and bans. 

The fund, managed by the nonprofit abortion rights group Cobalt, helped 20 times as many women last year compared with four years ago, according to fund data provided to The Colorado Sun. And it spent $204,000 helping pay for abortions and travel compared with less than $6,000 in 2017. 

Women from Colorado, other states and other countries receive help through the fund to pay not only medical costs but travel expenses to drive or fly to a clinic that provides abortions, including procedures later in pregnancy. Colorado is one of only seven states without restrictions on when during pregnancy a woman can get an abortion. 

The dramatic jump in fund activity comes as numerous other states pass laws restricting abortion, including so-called “heartbeat” laws that prohibit abortion after a heartbeat is detected. A medical exam can detect a heartbeat as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before some women know they are pregnant. 

The uptick in spending is also attributed to the fund’s takeover by Cobalt, which began managing it in 2017. The abortion fund was established in 1984 by volunteers at First Universalist Church of Denver, which for decades ran the fund with little publicity. The church created the fund in response to a law that banned the use of public money to pay for abortions, meaning women who qualified for Medicaid could not use the government insurance to get abortions. 

The donation-backed abortion fund aided 1,163 people last year, compared with 58 people in 2017, according to data released to The Sun by Cobalt. The nonprofit also provides groceries to women or couples staying in hotels while in Colorado for abortions, and prior to the coronavirus pandemic, set up volunteer drivers who would pick people up from the Denver airport and drive them to their hotels. 

So far this year, Cobalt is seeing a steady stream of requests for help, on par with last year’s demand. 

Organizations that help pregnant women keep their babies or seek adoption services also have ramped up efforts in recent years. Colorado has more than 50 religious-based pregnancy centers that encourage adoption, according to a Colorado Sun investigation published in 2019. 

Marisol Health, a network of medical clinics that is funded by Catholic Charities, said in an emailed statement that the last year “has brought more enthusiastic support for pregnant women seeking to build a new life with their baby.” The network, which did not provide budget figures, said it has expanded to provide telehealth, support groups, baby showers, clothing and transportation to doctors’ appointments. 

“We provide real solutions to women and families who find themselves in vulnerable situations,” the group said. “Our professional staff offer the compassionate care and community these women crave and need.”

Ohio woman’s Colorado abortion was illegal at home

Amanda Hicks traveled to Colorado from Ohio three weeks ago to get an abortion that is illegal in Ohio because she was more than halfway through her pregnancy. 

When Hicks’ doctor told her the daughter she was carrying was missing part of her brain and would never breathe on her own, it was already too late to get an abortion in her home state. And the thought of being pregnant for another 15 weeks with a child that would not survive was too much for her to bear. Hicks imagined taking her toddler to the pool this summer with a baby bump and having people ask when she was due or whether it was a girl or boy. 

“I was barely sleeping. I was barely eating,” said the stay-at-home mom from Columbus, Ohio. “It was unsurvivable, basically.” 

Hicks was 23 weeks pregnant when an MRI confirmed her baby girl was missing so much of her brain that she would not breathe, sit up or swallow. One option was to carry the baby to term, go through a Cesarean section, like she did with her first child, then recover for about a year before trying to get pregnant again.

Or she could travel out of state to terminate the pregnancy, and “start the healing process sooner,” Hicks said. Either way, Hicks and her husband, Scott, would not get to bring their baby home. 

Amanda and Scott Hicks pose with their daughter, Emrie. The Hicks recently traveled to Colorado for an abortion that was illegal in their home state of Ohio after receiving a lethal fetal diagnosis in the second half of Amanda’s pregnancy. (Provided by Amanda Hicks)

Ohio prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregancy. So the Hicks began researching where they could go to end the pregnancy, thinking “the sooner we could give our daughter a peaceful way to heaven, the better it would be for her and for us and the healing could begin,” Amanda Hicks said.

They quickly realized that a well-known clinic in Boulder provided abortions in later pregnancy. They also learned the procedure would cost about $10,500, not including $500 plane tickets for each of them, hotel and rental car costs, and food. 

A staff member at the clinic who told Hicks the estimated cost could “hear the shock” in Hicks’ reaction, Hicks said, and the woman told her about Cobalt and other organizations that help women afford the medical care. Cobalt pitched in $750 from its abortion fund, and three other organizations helped the Hicks by donating $250 to $1,000 apiece.

Three weeks ago, the couple flew to Denver, drove to Boulder and stayed in a hotel for five days for the procedure. “We were able to hold our daughter, which was really powerful,” Hicks said, fighting back tears during an interview with The Sun. “She was perfect on the outside. It was hard to wrap my head around how bad she was on the inside.” 

More than the money, Hicks said she was grateful for the emotional support from various organizations during a time in her life she never expected to go through. “I believe that you can be a good Christian, you can be a good mom, all while having gone through an abortion,” she said. “I want to be a testament to that.” 

States pass 28 new restrictions in four days

Numerous state legislatures have passed restrictions or bans on abortion this year. 

In a four-day period in late April, 28 new abortion restrictions were signed into law in seven states, according to a report from the Guttmacher Institute, which supports and tracks abortion rights. It was the largest number of restrictions signed in one week in at least a decade, said the institute, which has been supporting reproductive rights since 1968. 

Oklahoma and Idaho banned abortions as soon as a heartbeat is detected, and Montana banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Two other bills signed into law by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte require health care providers to give pregnant women the opportunity to view an ultrasound before performing an abortion, and require that providers administer abortion pills in person rather than through telehealth.

Also this year, Texas passed legislation that would ban abortion at six weeks gestation, which critics argue is so early that many women might not know they are pregnant. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this month signed the new law, which also empowers private citizens to sue abortion providers even when they have no connection to someone who had an abortion.

The new laws, similar to other abortions bans passed in recent years, will likely face legal challenges as abortion-rights groups claim they violate the constitutional right to an abortion. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority after three appointees by former President Donald Trump, this month agreed to hear a Mississippi case that could present a highly anticipated test of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made abortion access a constitutional right. The Mississippi law would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. 

Colorado is among the states with least restrictive abortion access in the nation. Voters shot down a ballot measure last year, called Proposition 115, that sought to ban abortions after 22 weeks of gestation, the stage at which proponents argue that a fetus could survive outside the womb. 

The ballot initiative — which lost 40% to 60% last November — included one exception: when the life of the mother is at risk. 

Groups that promoted the ballot measure have vowed to continue working to restrict abortion in Colorado, particularly in later pregnancy. 

Average abortion aid ranges from $200 to $2,000

Laws in other states have changed so quickly that women who had abortions scheduled in their home states have seen those appointments canceled, leaving them scrambling to get to Colorado, said Amanda Carlson, director of the Cobalt fund. 

“Laws are changing from week to week in some places,” she said. “That’s the stress people are being put under.” 

Cobalt typically contributes about $200 or less to women who are seeking abortions in the first trimester, procedures that cost $350-$600. For abortions later in pregnancy, the nonprofit ups its contribution to up to $2,000, still only a fraction of the $12,000-$25,000 procedures, Carlson said.

The contributions go directly to the clinic. In some cases, Cobalt only knows the women’s initials and not their full names, but provides the information and the money to the clinic. 

The nonprofit consistently works with seven independent clinics and 15 clinics owned by Planned Parenthood. For some rural Colorado women, the nearest abortion clinic is four hours away, and some of those women seek gas money from Cobalt.

Cobalt expects the fund to receive even more requests as abortion laws continue to change across the country. “We are watching states around us change the law and restrict and limit access to abortion care at a rapid rate,” said Karen Middleton, president of Cobalt. “We don’t think we are meeting all of the needs in Colorado.”

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...