Colorado leaders must guarantee reproductive justice

With abortion access threatened nationally, failure to establish state-level rights is not an option

January 27, 2022 4:05 am

Abortion rights activists from UltraViolet organize a light brigade outside the U.S. Supreme Court on Nov. 30, 2021, in Washington, D.C. The Court was to hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case about a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks, long before fetal viability. ( Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In July, former three-term Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm died. Roughly a month later, the Texas abortion ban went into effect.

The succession of these two events was symbolic of the perilous state of abortion rights in America and the half-century arc they’ve run from liberalization to elimination.

Lamm is largely responsible for establishing Colorado as the first state in the country to loosen its abortion laws. The Texas abortion ban, a big-dumb-grin kiss-off to Supreme Court precedent, is not only an affront to the rule of law, since it’s designed to skirt the criminal justice system through a civilian end-around, but it’s also among the most restrictive anti-abortion laws enacted since the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. 

The confluence of Lamm’s death and Roe’s imminent demise seems fated.


But while the constitutional right to get an abortion could be less than a year from being overturned, Colorado lawmakers once again are exhibiting leadership in ensuring reproductive health care for pregnant people.

In 1967, Lamm, then a freshman Democratic lawmaker in the Colorado House, introduced a bill that would allow an abortion during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy in cases when the woman’s mental or physical health was at risk and in cases of rape and incest, provided a three-doctor panel at a hospital gave approval. The restrictions might sound severe by today’s standards, but state law at the time allowed abortions only if a woman’s life was at stake.

The bill was controversial but bipartisan. It passed by wide margins in the House and Senate, and Gov. John Love signed it that April. The law helped build national momentum toward the expansion of abortion access, culminating six years later in the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established access to abortion as a constitutional right.

Abortion might have been divisive before Roe, but it wasn’t a particularly partisan issue until the 1970s, when Republicans, seeing President Richard Nixon succeed with the strategy, leaned into anti-abortion positions to win the sympathies of social conservatives. For nearly five decades Roe withstood the pressure, and in 1992 it was reaffirmed in the Supreme Court’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision.

But the pressure took on the weight of a cultural and judicial imperative among conservatives, and years of methodical, underhanded and anti-democratic plotting are about to yield a reversal of Roe and patchwork of state abortion bans.

Colorado holds a place of honor in the campaign for abortion rights, but opposition forces have schemed as persistently in the state as in the country’s redder regions. They ran proposed constitutional amendments that would have assigned “personhood” status to the unborn in 2008, 2010 and 2014. Colorado voters rejected every one of these attempts, but they served as notice that maintenance of abortion rights, even in Colorado, requires vigilance. That first run, in 2008, was led by a 20-year-old named Kristi Burton. Now she goes by Kristi Burton Brown and chairs the Colorado Republican Party.

Democrats dominate in the Colorado House and Senate, but that hasn’t stopped Republicans from trying to ban abortion through the General Assembly. Just this year, not a month into the new session, ultra-conservative state lawmakers have introduced bills that would assign “personhood” status to the unborn and make it a class 1 felony to perform an abortion.

That aligns with assaults on abortion rights in other states, where they have succeeded under Republican majorities. The Texas law is one of the most recent, and also the most brazen — it bans abortions at about six weeks after the pregnant person’s last menstrual cycle. A law in Mississippi is another. That one, which bans most abortions after 15 weeks, is the subject of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization at the Supreme Court. The court is expected to rule on the case this summer, and observers anticipate that the Trump-assembled conservative majority’s decision will bring an end to Roe.

That’s why Colorado lawmakers during the current legislative session must pass a proposed bill that would guarantee a right to abortion access. A set of Democratic lawmakers in December announced their intention to introduce the Reproductive Health Equity Act, and they’ve since provided more details — the law would affirm the right to abortion access during all stages of pregnancy, prohibit personhood rights from being assigned to the unborn, and use gender-neutral language when discussing pregnant people.

Colorado has comparatively very few restrictions on abortion, but it lacks a law that expressly protects abortion rights. Only eight states have enacted such laws, the latest being New Jersey, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Lamm is a divisive figure in Colorado politics. His legacy is marred by reprehensible views on race and immigration. But on abortion he helped make Colorado a model of progress.

Now that abortion laws are reverting to a posture of oppression in much of the country, it is crucial for Colorado leaders to ensure the state defends the fundamental right of abortion access and retains its place in the vanguard of reproductive justice.


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