Colorado is not prepared for the imminent surge in demand for abortions. Following the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, our state is now a pro-choice island, so we must take steps to ensure wide and equitable access to abortion.
As a resident family physician in Denver, I am unable to provide abortion care in my clinic due to a 1984 state constitutional amendment that prohibits the use of public funds for abortion. This law limits access to essential reproductive healthcare and disproportionately affects poor, rural, Black, Indigenous, and Latino people across Colorado. To serve as the bastion of abortion access that the country so desperately needs, we need bold political leadership that is determined to move past the state’s unjust status quo.
To truly promote reproductive justice in Colorado, we must make public funding available for abortions. This would improve abortion access in three critical ways.
First, it would allow state-funded health insurance plans, including Medicaid and Colorado state employee health insurance, to cover the procedure. Currently, abortion is covered under these plans only in the case of rape, incest, or a life-threatening pregnancy.
Everyone must have access to abortion in Colorado, not just those with financial means or private health insurance. This would require that all state-sponsored insurance plans provide full coverage. And since Medicaid recipients are more likely to identify as Black, Indigenous, or Latino, this is an issue of both racial and reproductive justice.
Second, health systems that receive state funding would be able to expand abortion services, rather than relying on private organizations such as Planned Parenthood to meet surging demand. Currently, my colleagues and I are forced to refer patients to other clinics with potentially long waiting lists for a service that is safe and well within the skillset of many primary care providers. This is ineffective and fragmented healthcare, and we must do better for Coloradans by expanding abortion access in clinics that receive state funding.
Third, public funding for abortions would help those currently in training learn how to perform abortions. Students and residents are the future of Colorado’s medical work force, but we face limited opportunities to learn abortion care. Using public funding to help expand abortion training is a necessary step toward preparing our health system for increased demand.
The restriction on use of state funds for abortions is a relic of Colorado’s political past that does not reflect modern Coloradan values. The law stems from a 1984 constitutional amendment that voters approved by a narrow 50.3%-to-49.6% margin.
It is unfathomable that a similar amendment would pass today.
As recently as 2020, Coloradans made a strong pro-choice statement by firmly rejecting a ballot measure that would have outlawed all abortions after 22 weeks of gestation. The margin was a solid 59 to 41 percent, demonstrating that Coloradans want abortions to be readily available. Political leaders should commit to ensuring that state laws reflect the voice of the people, by working to allow state funding for abortion.
We have taken great strides to protect reproductive rights in Colorado, but the lack of state funding remains a major barrier to access. Earlier this year, Governor Polis signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act into law, which declares a person’s right to make reproductive health decisions without government interference. This is an important step, but it does nothing to provide resources for expanding abortion access.
In an interview with Colorado Public Radio earlier this year, Polis refused to openly support changing Colorado law to allow state funding for abortion. This is an inexplicable contradiction for a self-avowed defender of reproductive rights. In the interview, he correctly states that allowing state funds to be used for abortion would require changing the state Constitution, an initiative that cannot come from the governor. But the governor’s refusal to commit to supporting an essential, and likely very popular, constitutional amendment amounts to complacency with a broken system.
Thanks to an unjust ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, Colorado is facing a looming tidal wave of abortion demand that we are ill-prepared to meet. If you are outraged by the end of Roe vs. Wade, the most important thing you can do is work to elect pro-choice candidates this fall who will do more than pay lip service to reproductive rights.
Ultimately, providing state funding for abortion will require passing a ballot measure to amend the state Constitution in 2024, but strong support from political leadership will improve the amendment’s chance of success. Coloradans should demand that Gov. Polis and state legislators show true leadership by championing a constitutional amendment to allow state funding for abortion.
Logan Harper, M.D., lives in Denver. The opinions expressed in this column are his and do not represent a position of the University of Colorado or the School of Medicine.
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