Historic debate on Colorado abortion rights results in bill advancing to final House vote
Bill would codify existing reproductive rights in state law
Reps. Meg Froelich, an Englewood Democrat, and Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, have a conversation on the House floor March 11, 2022. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
Following a marathon debate that Capitol observers say was the longest in modern history and included a heated confrontation between two Republican lawmakers, the Colorado House advanced a bill that would affirm abortion rights in the state.
Debate on House Bill 22-1279, known as the Reproductive Health Equity Act, began in the House at 10:53 a.m. Friday and didn’t end until about 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, when the bill advanced on a voice vote. At least one lawmaker was seen sleeping in their car in the Capitol parking lot Saturday morning, and at one point House Minority Leader Hugh McKean and Rep. Shane Sandridge reportedly were involved in a physical confrontation — the two Republicans engaged in a “belly bump and lot of cussing,” according to Colorado Politics reporter Marianne Goodland.
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Upon final passage in the House and Senate and a signature from Gov. Jared Polis, the measure would codify the right to have an abortion or to continue a pregnancy, as well as the right to use or refuse contraceptive care. It would also declare that a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have personhood rights under state law. Finally, HB-1279 would explicitly prohibit state and local governments from denying, restricting, interfering with, or discriminating against someone’s reproductive rights.
The bill’s prime sponsors are House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, state Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood and state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, all Democrats, and it’s co-sponsored by almost every Democrat in the state House and Senate.
No Republicans signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, and GOP members during the debate that started Friday voiced profound objections to the bill. Rep. Kevin Van Winkle (R-Highlands Ranch) said the central question of the debate was: “Is the unborn baby a member of the human family?”
Republicans argued the answer is “yes.”
But the Democratic sponsors of the Reproductive Health Equity Act, starting when they announced in December they planned to introduce the legislation, have asserted that it is a “fundamental right” for an individual to decide whether to get an abortion. And they have warned it’s a right that is threatened — abortion is legal in Colorado, but no state law affirms the right to get one, and the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to weaken or reverse the abortion rights secured by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Because HB-1279 would codify abortion rights in state law, but not the state Constitution, it could be overturned by a future legislature. A constitutional amendment would require voter approval.
“In the first place, this should not have been a bill,” McKean argued. “It should have been a constitutional amendment, if what they wanted to do was create an inalienable right to abortion or anything else. And so we spent our entire 20, however many hours, talking about what really came down to an issue that should have been settled by the voters.”
But Esgar said during the bill’s first hearing Tuesday that lawmakers believed the Supreme Court’s impending decision — expected by early October — necessitated urgent action on the part of state legislators. Passing a ballot measure requires more time, she said, adding that abortion-rights advocates hope to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2024. In the meantime, HB-1279 would prevent Colorado cities and towns from passing local restrictions on abortion.
“We are going to fight the good fight on this because it’s the right fight to have,” Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, said on the House floor after midnight Friday. “And if that means we have to lose a little bit of sleep, we’re more than happy to do that.”
Williams took issue with Democrats’ assertions that Republicans only cared about “pro-life” policies for the unborn, but didn’t care about protecting babies and children. He proposed that Democrats should amend the bill to provide for free adoptions. “If that is something that the majority wants to work with us on, let’s bring it forward,” Williams said.
“Abortion doesn’t go away when you restrict or ban it,” Rep. Mandy Lindsay, an Aurora Democrat, said in the early morning hours on Saturday. “Wealthy women, and I’ll even go as far to say as wealthy white women, will always have access to abortion.”
But while people with money could always pay a doctor in the U.S. or another country for a safe procedure, Lindsay argued, poor women would have to resort to “back-alley” and “coat hanger” abortion procedures should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade.
The confrontation between McKean and Sandridge happened several hours later. McKean said it was “not really an altercation.”
Around 5 a.m., Rep. Lindsey Daugherty, an Arvada Democrat, was presiding over the chamber as chair. When Sandridge began speaking at the well about “the history of abortion associated with certain vulnerable populations,” Daugherty interrupted him and asked him to explain how that was connected to the bill. “Can you do something?” Sandridge asked McKean in frustration. After that, a confrontation occurred out of view of The Colorado Channel camera.
“I think he wanted to make clear that he wanted a different decision from the chair,” McKean said of Sandridge. “I don’t think there’s anything of great concern there. I just think it’s a conversation that we had right there in the well.”
Sandridge in an interview with Newsline said Democrats had repeatedly tried to stifle speeches from Republicans, and he had urged Republican leadership, including McKean and Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, to push back against the Democratic tactic. Before his own speech, Sandridge had sent a group text to GOP leadership imploring them to challenge Democrats when they tried to limit Republican input. So when Daugherty interrupted him, Sandridge turned to his party leaders in frustration and demanded they “do something.”
He and McKean walked toward each other. “He comes up and bumps me with his stomach,” Sandridge said. Sandridge recalls saying, “What the f— are you doing, get off me.”
The exchange was brief, and Sandridge did not consider the interaction an “offense” or assault, he said. Republican Rep. Ron Hanks remarked to Sandridge that last year McKean had also bumped him with his stomach. McKean and Hanks in May 2021 were reported to have engaged in a confrontation in which Hanks threatened violence against McKean.
Sandridge suggested that the episode Saturday was indicative of underlying dysfunction among House Republicans and ineffectiveness on the part of leadership.
“There’s already a breakdown in our caucus. Half the caucus doesn’t even go to our caucus meetings,” he said. “We talk and then we walk out of the room. There’s never follow through.”
With the abortion bill, for example: “There was absolutely no leadership or organization for this bill” from the party’s nominal leaders, according to Sandridge. Instead, “(Rep. Stephanie Luck) stepped in and led the entire day, organized different groups and organized how we were going to attack this bill. Hugh McKean as Tim Geitner had nothing to do with it.”
Debate on the bill, at more than 23 hours, set a record for the duration of a debate on the floor of the state House or Senate going back more than 30 years, Robin Jones, chief clerk of the House, told Newsline.
“Since ’90 for sure,” he said.
He said he checked that assessment with Marilyn Eddins, his predecessor as chief clerk, who started working as a staffer in the House in 1982 and retired as chief clerk in 2019.
“I’m feeling exhausted, and kind of deflated,” McKean said after debate had concluded on Saturday. “Because we fought a good fight, and the bill passed as we feared it might, but no amendments, no changes.”
The Reproductive Health Equity Act was expected to be among the most politically significant and controversial bills introduced at the Colorado Capitol this year. On Wednesday, debate on the bill before the House Health and Insurance Committee stretched 14 hours into early Thursday morning. A member of the public interrupted the beginning of that hearing when she shouted about abortion, “It’s not health care! It’s killing babies,” and had to be escorted from the room by a sergeant-at-arms. The bill passed out of that committee on a 7 to 4 vote.
The Reproductive Health Equity Act faces a third and final vote in the House before being taken up in the Senate. Debate during third reading is typically less extensive but involves a recorded vote as opposed to a voice vote.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at midnight, March 13, 2022, to include comments from Rep. Shane Sandridge and add detail about the interaction between him and Minority Leader Hugh McKean.
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