Last week, Gov. Jared Polis appeared on Colorado Matters with host Ryan Warner. The opening question was as straightforward as it gets: “Do you support removing the ban on state funding for abortion?”
For pro-choice supporters — which Polis claims to be — the answer should have been a simple “yes.” But Polis refused to answer the question directly. Instead, after multiple follow-ups, the governor ultimately resorted to a condescending dismissal of Warner’s question as “hypothetical” and falsely likened abortion to a “nose job.”
Polis later retracted the insensitive “nose job” comment in an interview with the Colorado Sun, but he continued to sidestep the issue of abortion access. It’s a huge red flag for reproductive health care advocates, and the lack of firm commitment comes at a critical juncture as the Supreme Court leak suggests the conservative court intends to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Although the Democratic-held state legislature worked to codify the right to abortion into state law this session — a bill Polis himself signed into law — a nearly 40-year-old ban on using state funds for abortion remains in Colorado’s constitution.
It’s a contradiction of epic proportions.
The ban on using state funds for abortions was first implemented in 1984, passing by less than one percentage point. Prior to this time, state funds were permitted for abortion use. Only one attempt to repeal the ban appears to have reached voters since then, with the 1988 repeal effort failing by a wide margin. Today, this leaves Coloradans with both the right to have an abortion, yet the lack of right to access one without individual means.
In response to Polis’ ambiguity on the show, the Colorado Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice Coalition rightly issued a timely statement calling on the first-time governor to “reaffirm his support for reproductive health care access.”
“The ban on public funding for abortion care impacts hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, and people on Medicaid,” they wrote, adding that the ban disproportionately impacts communities of color.
“Nobody wants to find out that their insurance won’t cover the health care that they need, but in Colorado, an outdated law means that public servants and those with lower incomes and legally banned from using their insurance for abortion care. Access to health care is a right, not a privilege.”
They’re right, and Polis would do well to heed their call. Even if repealing the ban is not a governor’s action — as Polis suggested was one reason why he wouldn’t affirm support — his position carries weight, and there’s simply no good reason for a state that has enshrined the right to abortion into law to deny access to it via state health plans — especially not when the law banning access was enacted nearly four decades ago.
The need to repeal the statewide ban is particularly relevant in light of the Hyde amendment, a federal statute passed in 1976 — only three years after Roe v. Wade — that prohibits the use of public funds for abortion. The result is that people on Medicaid are unable to use their health care coverage to pay for abortion services, even if a doctor recommends the procedure due to the pregnant person’s health being at risk.
In America, this translates to an estimated 1 in 5 women of reproductive age currently on Medicaid being unable to securely access the procedure, with Black and Hispanic women making up a larger proportion of coverage. Only a small handful of states currently offer state funds to provide these women options in light of the federal ban.
If Colorado is serious about leading the charge on reproductive rights in light of Roe v. Wade likely being overturned, then we’ve got to work together to repeal the constitutional ban on state funds for abortion access. Unfortunately, achieving this goal will be that much more difficult if Polis continues to evade open support.
Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.
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