Demonstrators hold banners in an abortion rights rally outside of the Supreme Court as the justices hear oral arguments in the June Medical Services v. Russo case on March 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
When Lorenne Gavish found out she was pregnant in 2019 while living in New Mexico, she felt as if she was drowning in her abusive relationship. For Gavish, who now lives in Colorado, her first decision as a mother was to wait to become one.
“Having been able to have that abortion and extract myself from that, I’ve been able to heal,” said Gavish, who now works at the nonprofit ProgressNow Colorado. “Not just keep my life together but literally heal my brain, in a way that I don’t know if I ever would’ve been able to if I had been forced to have a child with the person that had brought me harm.”
A handful of laws passed this year by Colorado lawmakers expand access to reproductive health care, including abortion access for survivors of rape or incest, preventive services for sexually transmitted infections, and family planning for low-income and undocumented people throughout the state.
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The passage of the laws comes amid shrinking abortion access across the country, and as the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear arguments for an abortion case from Mississippi that many reproductive rights advocates view as a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade — the landmark decision that protects a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction.
The case, which will be heard in October, concerns a Missisippi law that prohibits abortion after 15 weeks, with limited exceptions.
“States have tried to do this before, but those have all been dismissed on their face because Roe says that states can’t ban abortion, prior to a certain gestational limit,” said Jack Teter, regional director of government affairs for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains. “But if the court says, ‘Yes, Mississippi, you can ban abortion at 15 weeks,’ then they’re saying the precedent set in Roe doesn’t count anymore.”
Barriers to abortion removed for survivors of rape or incest
Abortion is already legal in Colorado, so much of the focus for lawmakers and advocates was to make reproductive health care services more accessible.
Senate Bill 21-142 ensures that survivors of incest or rape can access abortion care without being required to go to a special clinic if they are on Medicaid, the state’s low-income health insurance plan.
“There used to be only one location, and by that I mean one building, where sexual violence survivors on Medicaid could access covered abortion care,” said Teter. “It’s a hospital in the Denver metro area. So patients in rural Colorado faced enormous drives like, seven hours over a mountain range for a patient from Cortez.”
Now, patients can access care with the same providers as people with private insurance, according to Teter.
Teter was disappointed to see how many Republicans at the Colorado Capitol who voted against the bill, stressing that the partisan vote does not represent how the majority of Coloradans feel about abortion access.
“Proposition 115 was defeated in seven counties that voted for the Republican presidential candidate, so support among the voters is statewide and nonpartisan and significant,” Teter said. “So it’s a bummer that it becomes partisan in the Legislature.”
Colorado voters soundly rejected a ballot proposal in 2020 to ban abortion after 22 weeks.
Not everyone is on board with the law that will remove barriers for people to access abortion care.
Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops of Colorado, testified in opposition to the bill during one of its committee hearings.
“There’s never been and never will be a legitimate need to abort a baby in the womb,” Vessely told lawmakers. “The act of rape and incest is a grave injustice that claims far too many people, most often women and children as victims.”
“However, if a child is conceived and pregnancy (is) caused by rape and incest, then this child is just as innocent and precious as the woman who was victimized,” she added.
Contraception as a mandatory health benefit
Senate Bill 21-16 expands certain preventive health care services to include counseling, prevention and screening for a sexually transmitted infection and adds contraception as a mandatory health benefit. Teter said the law will help tighten existing laws that have caused unintended consequences, such as “surprise billing.”
“A patient might get the wrong brand of birth control, and their insurance might say, ‘Well, we cover IUDs, but we don’t cover the Mirena, for example,” he explained. “That’s jarring and can really have a tremendous impact on folks.”
The new law ensures that STI testing and prevention is available with no out-of-pocket costs and ensures that people on Medicaid can access the full spectrum of family planning services without needing to get prior authorization.
A bipartisan bill still awaiting Gov. Jared Polis’ signature would expand income eligibility for family planning Medicaid coverage. Essentially, the law gives greater access to people whose income is higher than what would qualify them for Medicaid but not enough to afford a health insurance plan through the state’s marketplace, Connect for Health Colorado.
Erin Miller, vice president of initiatives with the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit policy and research organization that helped spearhead the bill, said that the legislation was born from a need the organization saw throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Families were losing their health insurance coverage and their jobs and were worried about whether or not they could afford and access the contraception that they wanted,” Miller said.
Another win, according to Miller, was that lawmakers restored funding for the state’s family planning program.
“That program took a 15% cut last year,” she said. “We had to cut $3 billion in the budget in response to COVID-19, and so that funding was restored this year which was really, really good news.”
Another bill, Senate Bill 21-9, creates a contraceptive coverage program for undocumented individuals.
Katherine Riley, policy manager for the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, was excited to see so many bills pass this session that help connect the dots between reproductive justice and health care.
“I think we just all want to build on this momentum, because now we can see like, yes, we can demand and enact real change for our communities and now that we’ve seen that, I don’t think any of us will settle for anything less next session,” Riley said, who helped pass SB-9.
Colorado: a sanctuary state for reproductive rights and abortion access
For Teter, Colorado plays an especially crucial role in the national landscape of reproductive rights and access. This year, over 550 abortion-related restrictions were introduced in 47 states, 83 of which have become law, including 10 abortion bans.
“And with SCOTUS announcing they will hear the Mississippi case — and with a majority of justices on the court now considered hostile to reproductive rights — we’re looking at a new reality for abortion access for 25 million women of reproductive age in the next year or so.”
He said the laws Colorado did — and didn’t — pass this year help ensure that the state remains a sanctuary for people seeking reproductive health care.
“This is about us having our doors open for our neighbors in Kansas, Wyoming, Nebraska,” he said. “People are going to have to travel to access the care they need. We had a taste of this during COVID, where we had a 1,200% increase in Texas patients when Texas shut down access during COVID.”
State Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican and former minority leader, introduced a bill this session that would have made abortion a felony offense punishable by life in prison. The bill failed to make it out of its first committee.
“Of course, that’s not going to pass in Colorado, but they ran a bill to do that,” Teter said. “And (Republicans) ran the same bill in states where they have the majority.
If the Supreme Court no longer says, ‘Hey, you can’t do that,’ then that’s when care becomes not only impossible to access in practicality, but also illegal,” he added.
When Teter thinks about the future of abortion rights, he said it feels as if he’s watching news coverage of people preparing for hurricane season.
“It feels like we are preparing for this very bad thing that’s about to happen, that most people don’t realize is about to happen,” Teter said. “The Supreme Court has stood as our civil rights safety net backstop for decades, but that’s not the case anymore.”
“It’s a paradigm shift that I don’t know we have totally wrapped our heads around,” he added.
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