Before the first abortion clinic in Colorado opened in 1973, the only options for people who sought to end their pregnancies were clandestine and potentially dangerous.
It was the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade, deciding that the Constitution protected the right to an abortion and effectively bringing abortion procedures above ground in most states. In the past 50 years, what was originally called the Boulder Valley Clinic has changed its name more than once and evolved from providing only abortions to offering a range of reproductive health care as well sex education in schools.
As it celebrates the milestone — with a “condom couture” party scheduled for Sept. 23 in which performers will wear fashion made from expired prophylactics — the clinic is dropping “women” from its name, Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center, and unveiling a new nongendered logo to reflect its inclusiveness of LGBTQ people. It’s also adding mobile breast cancer screenings and creating the REAL Youth Council, named for reproductive justice, education, advocacy and leadership.
The Colorado Sun caught up with two leaders of the center, CEO and chief medical officer Savita Ginde and director of development Jennifer Johnson, to talk about the clinic’s five decades of providing abortions and its adjustments following the fall of Roe and abortion bans enacted in other states. The following was edited for clarity.
THE SUN: When the clinic opened in 1973, it faced threats and protests, which have continued off and on for 50 years. What’s it like to operate a center that provides abortions during such an intense, tumultuous time when the country is battling over abortion laws and court rulings?
GINDE: This speaks to the bravery that is foundational to Boulder Valley Health Center. Even today, we have a brave and amazing staff who makes sure that we’re providing the highest quality care to our patients, no matter what. In the current, dynamic times across this country, we see a lot of things changing in regard to access to reproductive care for everybody. It’s gone beyond just abortion care. We’re starting to see some restrictions for gender-affirming care. What we do for our clinic is what we’ve always done — make sure that people are safe, staff are safe, and that people know what to do if there’s a question or a concern. We’re not getting involved in the politics; we’re here to provide the care.
JOHNSON: Everyone that works here goes through security training to know to take it very seriously. We can’t get into our Boulder bubble. You have to be vigilant.
THE SUN: When the center was started by two physicians in 1973, the focus was solely on abortion care. How has it evolved to also offer gender-affirming care for adults, a confidential birth control clinic for teens and contraception services?
GINDE: Especially in providing abortion care, there’s always a need to address conception for those people that want to have the conversation about contraception, or how people might want to have a little bit more control over when they might get pregnant. Having those conversations has been a part of abortion care since Boulder Valley was founded. Then that unfolds and blooms into its own array of services. Especially these days, there’s a multitude of different birth control available and some of it, like an IUD, needs an insertion. We’re able to be a one-stop shop for patients, and able to serve the patients who simply just want birth control and aren’t seeking abortion care. At one point, we were providing vasectomy services, which right now, we aren’t doing. That just speaks to the fact that having been around for 50 years, we’re a part of the fabric of our community, and so we hear what their needs are and we respond accordingly.
THE SUN: And that community responsiveness has led to becoming the sex education provider in local schools? (The health center has two educators on staff who provide sex education in Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley schools in Longmont.)
JOHNSON: Colorado has guidelines around sex education, so our curriculum includes covering all those bases. Some schools have us in multiple times. And often, after coming once, they’re like, ‘Oh, we might have you come back again. The kids are asking.’ They feel more comfortable talking to our educators instead of their teachers because it’s an outside person. And we get really funny and very, very real questions. The kids really feel seen by our educators. We cover the full range of things, not just birth control, but we talk about consent, we talk about relationships. They really appreciate that it’s not just this very scientific-only education because most kids nowadays probably know a lot of that already. We want to have it be beyond that.
GINDE: We’re talking about the concept of consent, and what that means to give and get consent from a partner. We’re planning on educating at least 3,000 students, middle or high school, across the 2023-24 school year.
THE SUN: How much has your patient population increased since Roe was overturned and nearby states began passing laws to restrict abortion? We know from state data that the number of Texans traveling to Colorado for abortions went up 500%. Texas passed its “heartbeat act,” banning abortion after fetal cardiac activity was detected, in 2021, before Roe was struck down. It now prohibits all abortions except in cases where the mother is at risk of death or “substantial impairment.”
GINDE: We’re still looking at a 200% to 300% increase in call volume, a 200% to 300% increase in patients. More than 50% of our patients each week for abortion care do come to us from out of state (compared with 10% before Roe was overturned). And we also know that for over 1.2 million individuals in our surrounding states, we are their primary first step for abortion care, because they all live in states that no longer provide that service.
We still always had Texas patients primarily. But now we’ve had more from Florida, Georgia, Tennessee. I think about people just being able to get on a flight, like you could probably go Atlanta to Denver pretty easily. You see people driving for 10 or 12 hours now to get to us. The number of people from Texas has just exploded, but also Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Utah, you name it.
JOHNSON: One of the things I am most proud of is we have our paid patient service assistants. When someone calls us, and they are coming from out of state, and they need to have travel expenses, cover day care, we don’t just say, “Oh, here’s some places that might help you.” We actually call those places for them, work out all the arrangements for them, because we know they have enough on their mind. Our patient service assistants are helping them from step one, to getting here, to checking on them afterwards. No doctor’s office does that for any of us, right?
THE SUN: How have you adjusted to meet the increase in patients?
GINDE: We are providing additional appointments and additional service hours to make sure that we are first and foremost taking care of our local community, the Colorado community and then beyond, and that everyone can get in in a timely manner. That’s probably our most important thing: that patients can be seen as quickly as possible. We are adding appointments for both reproductive health care and abortion care, and depending on the need, we can flex that. It has sharpened our focus. We have our path forward. We’ve done 50 years, we now know where we’re heading in these next 50.
THE SUN: Colorado, which has no restrictions on when during a pregnancy a person can get an abortion, passed a law last year ahead of the fall of Roe that affirmed access to abortion in this state. This year, the Democratic-controlled legislature passed a law that could ban the so-called abortion reversal pill. What do you think of the state medical board’s recent rule calling abortion reversal outside the bounds of acceptable practice?
GINDE: It just goes back to manifesting the bravery that we’ve been talking about that is here in the roots of Boulder Valley Health Center in having been the first abortion clinic in the state. As a state, we’re able to stand up and identify misinformation. Reversal products are not valid. It is a moment of pride to know that we live in a state that really looks at the science and the accuracy of the information that’s being provided, just like we’re doing in our schools. We’re really trying to make sure that children are getting medically accurate information. It’s so important because we know there’s so many places on the internet that look like they’re valid information, and they’re not scientifically sound. I think we’re doing our best to take care of each other.
THE SUN: Why is Boulder Valley Health Center, which has been called Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center since 1987, dropping “women” from its name? (The clinic also changed its logo from a female figure standing under a tree of green leaves to a non-gendered figure reaching upward toward an abstract, colorful tree.)
JOHNSON: We’ve always actually served anyone. It doesn’t matter what people’s gender identity is; we’re here to serve the whole community. We felt like if someone was coming in who did not identify as female, they would feel uncomfortable with that word in the name. And we really wanted to make sure that everyone in the community knows they’re welcome here for their health care, however they identify.