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Noah Slayter, 20, of Manassas, Va., poses for a portrait while protesting outside the Supreme Court about abortion, Wednesday, June 15, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

A Texas anti-abortion group working to make inroads in Colorado faced a setback Monday night after the Pueblo City Council rejected a proposed ordinance that would have effectively banned abortions in the city.

The measure, which was expected to draw at least 100 speakers from the public, was dismissed in a 4-3 vote before any comments were made.

“If you want to ban abortion, I would suggest you take it up with the legislature or quite frankly you move out of Colorado, because the city council is not the arena to be bringing this forward,” said Heather Graham, president of the council.

In the first few minutes of the meeting, Graham suggested indefinitely tabling the proposed ordinance, saying she didn’t want to allow public comment on something that isn’t in the city’s jurisdiction.

Council members Sarah Martinez, Dennis Flores, Vicente Ortega and Graham voted to table the measure, while Regina Maestri, Lori Winner and Larry Atencio voted to keep it on the agenda. The vote scuttled the proposal but a council member could reintroduce it in the future, a spokesperson for the city said.

The measure was the first attempt by a Texas-based anti-abortion group to challenge a Colorado law passed this year that prohibits state and local restrictions on access to abortion and contraception. Mark Lee Dickson, who runs the organization, Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, says he wants to see every city in Colorado work to ban abortions.

“I am confident that if this ordinance were to pass, then y’all would not have an abortion facility within your city limits,” Dickson told the council Monday before its vote.

Abortion battles returning

The fight in Pueblo comes about five months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion and bringing abortion battles to the fore across the country. Colorado passed a law prohibiting local restrictions on the procedure, known as the Reproductive Health Equity Act, or House Bill 1279, in April after a leaked draft of a preliminary opinion suggested the court was preparing to overturn Roe. 

Had the Pueblo ordinance passed, it likely would have set up a court battle with the state.

Dickson’s group, which has helped abortion bans get approved in about 60 cities in at least five states, set its sights on Pueblo after an abortion provider, Clinics for Abortion and Reproductive Excellence, purchased a building in the city. The provider, which has clinics in Nebraska and Maryland, began operations in Pueblo on Dec. 5. The city doesn’t have any other existing abortion clinics and the closest option is 50 miles away in Colorado Springs, according to The Pueblo Cheiftain. 

But the defeat doesn’t mean Dickson is done with Colorado. While Dickson hasn’t identified any specific communities he’s working with, he told The Colorado Sun he’s been in discussions with pro-life leaders in the state for several years.

The Pueblo measure would have prohibited the delivery of tools and medicines that could be used for elective abortions. It also would have required abortion clinics to apply for licenses while empowering the city to deny them based on the delivery prohibition. The proposal excluded fertility treatments, contraception and procedures to remove an unviable fetus and ectopic pregnancy under its definition of abortion.

The final decision came after several weeks of meetings and debates that attracted controversy, with people on both sides of the issue delivering impassioned remarks. The council gave preliminary approval to the ban in a Nov. 28 meeting following split reactions among council members on whether to support the bill.

Legalities discussed

Just before the final decision, a lawyer for the city all but promised a legal showdown with the state if the measure were to pass.

City Attorney Dan Kogovsek told the council the ordinance is in conflict with state law and if approved, the city could expect to be sued by the Colorado attorney general. 

“I think I can say with some confidence that if this passes tonight, we will be sued before Christmas,” Kogovsek said.

Attorney General Phil Weiser previously said his office was monitoring the Pueblo measure, prepared to defend Colorado’s abortion protections.

The lawyers with Dickson argued that the ordinance followed a federal law from 1873 that banned the delivery of abortion supplies and therefore should be considered legal. An attorney speaking in favor of the ordinance told the council that law hasn’t been enforced since at least 1973. Kogovsek said in his presentation that he could only find one case from 1915 that attempted to use that law but ultimately failed to do so. 

Cobalt, a Colorado nonprofit that advocates for abortion access, praised the Pueblo City Council for rejecting the measure.

“It was in direct violation of not only (Colorado) law protecting abortion… but also goes against what Coloradans and Puebloans have made clear they want: access to abortion free from (government) interference,” the group said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat and lead sponsor on House Bill 1279, said in an interview that she’s concerned this was just the first attempt by Dickson in Colorado to poke holes in the bill.

“This is being orchestrated by these out-of-state actors who admittedly travel the country trying to pass local abortion bans like this. Please don’t let them bring these Texas-style politics into Pueblo,” Esgar said.

Esgar’s term ends before the next legislative session. 

Details on proposal

The proposed ordinance was similar to a 2021 Texas bill that allows private citizens to enforce the law in civil rather than criminal court by suing anyone who provides or receives an abortion after six weeks. 

The Pueblo law would have subjected anyone who violates the delivery prohibition to at least $100,000 in damages. 

House Bill 1279 says a government entity in Colorado may not “deny, restrict, interfere with or discriminate against an individual’s fundamental right to use or refuse contraception or to continue a pregnancy and give birth or to have an abortion.” 

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, to reflect that the Clinics for Abortion and Reproductive Excellence began operations in Pueblo on Dec. 5.

Elliott Wenzler wrote about politics, water, housing, and other topics for The Colorado Sun from October 2022 through September 2023. She has covered community issues in Colorado since 2019, including for Colorado Community Media. She has been...