Billboards screaming about abortion pills. More “sidewalk counseling” and protesters outside clinics. More out-of-state money, more volunteers, more patients traveling to Colorado to seek abortions.
This is what the future of the abortion battle will look like in Colorado, predicted advocates on both sides Tuesday after a leaked U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade became public.
The news jolted abortion-rights groups and inspired a conference call Tuesday morning among anti-abortion leaders in Colorado, even though both sides have been preparing for the moment for months if not years. Only a month ago, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis signed a law affirming access to abortion and contraception in this state, following an intense battle among lawmakers who anticipated the stakes.
While the leaked Supreme Court opinion is only a draft, it made clear that the majority of the court is likely to vote in the next couple of months to end the constitutional right to an abortion, leaving the matter up to the states. States across the South and Midwest are likely to outlaw the procedure. And in Colorado, which has no restrictions on when during a pregnancy a person can get an abortion, activists on both sides will amp up their efforts.
Planned Parenthood and Cobalt, which already have seen an increase in out-of-state patients as Texas, Oklahoma and other states have restricted abortion, said they will work harder to help women get care in Colorado. Cobalt oversees an abortion fund that pays for bus fare, plane tickets and even sends money to pay for child care for people across the country seeking abortions in Colorado. The nonprofit is asking abortion clinics to add more shifts and open more days of the week.
“We are going to protect access in Colorado no matter what,” said Karen Middleton, Cobalt’s president.
Anti-abortion groups, meanwhile, are already making plans about how to change the minds of women who come to Colorado seeking to end their pregnancies. Expect more billboards saying it’s not too late to reverse an abortion after ingesting abortion pills, said Jeff Hunt, director of the Centennial Institute at Colorado Christian University.
He predicts more out-of-state money coming to Colorado to fund crisis centers for pregnant women, more volunteers offering “sidewalk counseling” outside abortion clinics, and more money to care for babies.
Just because patients travel to Colorado for care, it doesn’t mean it’s too late to persuade them to keep their pregnancies, Hunt said. “They don’t give up, in our opinion, until the murder has taken place,” he said.
“We want to communicate to those women that there are alternatives,” he said. “It’s not necessarily final.”
The Supreme Court news also revived ongoing conversations among anti-abortion groups about how to challenge Colorado’s new law affirming abortion rights in court. They intend to fight it on the grounds that it discriminates against a class or people — unborn babies, Hunt said. The groups also are preparing to counter any proposal to put a similar law in the Colorado constitution via a ballot measure.
In the past year, the number of out-of-state residents traveling here for abortion care rises nearly every week, according to Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. In the last eight months, Planned Parenthood saw 1,220 Texas abortion patients. That compares to 306 patients in the same eight-month period a year earlier, a nearly 300% increase.
CEO Adrienne Mansanares said Coloradans who want to protect abortion rights can’t just relax, thinking the matter is solved in this state. “We have to have people in Colorado see how committed the anti-women’s health movement is,” she said. “They have taken down our federal protections and they are absolutely coming for us in Colorado.”
She called the language used by anti-abortion groups “repulsive.”
“It’s stigmatizing. They’re talking about us. Our daughters, our mothers, our cousins.”
In the past several months, as other states have passed strict laws prohibiting abortion even within weeks of conception, Colorado has seen not just an influx of patients but of volunteers. More people are offering money as well as volunteering to drive patients to appointments or escort them into clinics, she said.
“They are arriving so beat down with such levels of shame having been stigmatized in their home states,” Mansanares said. “We can support the safe passage of patients who are fleeing these restrictive environments.”
Colorado abortion providers already seeing more out-of-state patients
Patients in Texas, which in September enacted a near-total ban on the procedure starting around six weeks of pregnancy, now must travel farther to get timely care, said Dr. Rebecca Cohen, a Denver-area abortion provider.
It’s “going to get so many folds worse,” she said, adding the leaked draft makes it “real.”
Cohen is seeing more patients who are later in their pregnancy and “have been through a lot” — in terms of coordinating logistics and traveling — by the time they reach the clinic. “We’re having to prioritize those appointments because they are more urgent,” she said.
“We are going to continue providing abortion care, in no way are we going to stop, but it’s really already sort of stretching the limits of what we can do.”
“We are seeing an increased volume and we’re working as quickly as we can — as are many other providers in Colorado — to increase the number of patients we see.”
It’s different, Cohen said, to get an abortion when you live an hour away from a clinic versus several states away.
As Colorado tries to increase its clinics, hours and appointments, it will face challenges, she said. There are fewer providers in rural areas, which are often closer to states with limited abortion access, and there is a ban on using state funding to cover abortion care.
Dr. Warren Hern, who has performed abortions in Colorado for nearly 50 years, said he wasn’t surprised by the draft but called it a “cataclysmic” setback for women that “takes us back 250 years.”
Since the Texas abortion ban went into effect, Hern’s clinic has seen twice as many patients as before and is scheduling appointments several weeks in advance. Almost all the patients they see are 20 weeks or more pregnant “because they are the ones that are most desperate and can’t see anyone else,” Hern said.
Colorado would be “island” of abortion access
State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician and Democrat now running for Congress, said she looked at a map of where abortion would be banned if the Roe v. Wade decision were struck down and saw that Colorado would be a “big island” of abortion access in the middle of the country.
“I think there will be a lot of providers that are going to be looking for a place to provide needed medical care and that Colorado can be a place to tell them that we’re open to them and that we will be a haven for these women and these providers,” she said.
“I’ve had only a handful of young women whom I’ve had to tell that they’re pregnant and the only good thing about that — given that they were all teenagers — is that I can immediately go into a conversation about what their choices are.”
“Sometimes they don’t want to talk about it or sometimes they think that they’ve made up their mind but I as a health care provider have a very clear role in telling them what their choices are. To live in a world where I can’t do that and I tell them, basically you have one or maybe two choices, but all of them include you carrying a baby that you might perhaps don’t want to carry is devastating.”
Those already experiencing “oppression” are most likely to be affected by abortion bans, said Kate Coleman-Minahan, a University of Colorado College of Nursing professor who has researched abortion issues. She said she was speaking on behalf of herself and not her employer.
That includes people who are low income, immigrants, people of color and young people, who don’t have the right to consent to an abortion in some states.
Those are the people for whom it is “hardest to get out of state and get an abortion,” Coleman-Minahan said. “They may not actually be able to.”
Court opinion inspires rallies in Colorado
Jaz DeWills sat by the steps outside the Colorado Capitol — the same steps she’d stood on in 1986 when the National Organization for Women held a convention and led marches nationwide. She walked down the street with her youngest son, then a baby. Her mother also attended the march, wearing buttons with messages like “Motherhood by Choice not Force.”
DeWills was wearing the same pins Tuesday, pinned to her brown wrap.
“Here we are again,” she said.
DeWills said she felt betrayed and angry at people who told her she had nothing to worry about in 2016, when Republican President Donald Trump was elected. Until the past few years, she hadn’t expected to see the Roe v. Wade decision gutted in her lifetime.
“I think for now we’ll be safe because of our local laws,” she said. But she’s grateful her daughter, who lives in Wichita Falls, Texas, will be moving home in 10 days to be closer to family.
“I’m grateful that she’s getting out of there,” DeWills said.
Her mother died last year, she added.
“I’m glad she didn’t see this,” she said.
Also at the rally was high school student Cora Woodruff, who skipped class to attend in support of access to abortion. She wore a scarlet cloak and held a sign that said “My Body My Choice,” and more profane messages about the Supreme Court and Justice “Amy coat hanger Barrett.”
The cloak was a tribute to the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale in which “men are controlling” women, she said.
“Banning abortions doesn’t get rid of abortions permanently. It gets rid of safe, legal abortions. And sure we’ll see the rate of abortions go down but we will see the rise of women dying,” she said.
She wasn’t surprised to see the Supreme Court’s leaked opinion.
“I know that for years the Supreme Court and white, cis, straight men in the Supreme Court have been trying to get rid of abortions,” she said. “I’m not as surprised as I thought I would be, which is really sad.”
Colorado allowed abortion before Roe v. Wade
Colorado was the first state in the nation to expand abortion laws to include mental health as justification in 1967. The measure was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Love and sponsored by then-Rep. Dick Lamm, a Democrat who served as governor from 1975 through 1987.
Under the law, abortion would be allowed up to 16 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape, incest or if a woman’s physical or mental health would be in danger of carrying through the pregnancy. On the law’s 50th anniversary in 2017, Denverite reported that more than half of the 262 abortions in the law’s first year cited the mother’s mental health.
In 1973, shortly after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the state’s first abortion clinic opened in Boulder. Now named Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center, the center continues to offer abortions as well as a range of reproductive and sexual health care.
Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains began offering abortion services in 1973 also, after offering birth control and family planning services for decades.
In the early 1980s, groups opposing abortion began opening clinics aimed at encouraging pregnant women to carry their pregnancy to term and keep their children or give them up for adoption. Originally called crisis pregnancy centers, a 2019 Colorado Sun investigation found that the clinics were rebranding but also potentially deceiving young women about providing medical services.
Amanda Stevenson, a University of Colorado Boulder sociologist who has researched reproductive health issues, said Colorado has two significant restrictions on abortion access, including that parents be notified if a minor plans to obtain an abortion. State funding also doesn’t fund abortions, so those on Medicaid — and on some forms of private insurance — would have to pay out of pocket for the procedure.
The cost of an abortion can range from around $500 to more than $1,000 depending on the clinic and the stage of pregnancy.
“Those restrictions can both make it harder for people and completely prevent them from getting care,” Stevenson said.
Overcoming those hurdles is a challenge for state residents, and harder for those coming from out of state, she added.
If abortions were banned nationwide, pregnancy-related deaths would increase at least 21% overall, with a rate higher among non-Hispanic Black people, according to a study Stevenson authored.