Abortion rights bill passes Colorado Legislature after two long days of Senate debate
‘Reproductive Health Equity Act’ to take effect upon Gov. Jared Polis’s signature
Colorado State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, poses for a portrait in her office at the Capitol on April 28, 2021. A member of the Latino Caucus, she’s sponsoring a handful of bills during the 2021 legislative session to increase legal protections for renters and increase the state’s stock of affordable housing. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
The 35 members of the Colorado Senate spent more than 12 hours Tuesday debating a bill that would codify abortion rights in state law, with Republicans doing their best to delay it as long as they could.
With a final recorded vote Wednesday, after another hours-long debate, House Bill 22-1279 passed the state Legislature. It now heads to the governor’s desk for his signature.
HB-1279, titled the “Reproductive Health Equity Act,” was approved on a voice vote at 11:27 p.m. Tuesday after hours of stall tactics from Republicans, who proposed a series of amendments that were all rejected by the Democratic majority. Following the bill’s passage on second reading, the bill’s Senate sponsor, state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver, and her Democratic colleagues ushered the bill through a third and final vote Wednesday morning. The bill was passed on a 20-15 vote along party lines.
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Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has indicated that he plans to sign HB-1279 once it gets to his desk. It would take effect immediately upon his signature.
“Governor Polis is pro-choice and supportive of efforts to protect existing rights including a woman’s right to choose in Colorado law,” Polis’ spokesperson Conor Cahill told Newsline in an email.
HB-1279 would affirmatively state that people in Colorado have the right to have an abortion or to continue a pregnancy, as well as the right to use or refuse contraceptive care. It would explicitly prohibit state and local governments from denying, restricting, interfering with, or discriminating against those reproductive rights. The legislation would also declare that a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have personhood rights under state law.
Ahead of Tuesday’s marathon Senate debate, the chamber’s 15 Republicans sought to dispel any myths that some in their caucus would be likely to support the bill or acquiesce in any way.
“Senate Republicans are united in opposition to this bill, and we will work as hard as we can to defeat it when it reaches the Senate floor,” Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, said in a statement. “However, we cannot stop this bill without support from the Democratic majority. We encourage Coloradans to contact Senate Democrats and encourage their opposition to this bill.”
In a speech before the debate started on Tuesday, Holbert explained that though “nothing matters more than this” to Senate Republicans, legislative rules prevented GOP lawmakers from talking indefinitely to prevent a vote. That’s because they have to connect their comments to the content of the bill, and Democrats presiding over the chamber determine whether comments strictly relate to the legislation.
“We don’t get to filibuster,” Holbert said. “I have one of my Bibles here. People who are believers have said, just start reading the Bible and go until midnight May 11. Unless the bill is about the Bible, I can’t do that.”
Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance
In their own speeches at the well and public statements, Democrats described HB-1279 as a necessary protection for pregnant Coloradans in the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses or weakens past rulings guaranteeing the right to abortion until the point of fetal viability. That’s the point at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
“Right now, reproductive rights are under attack across the country, and if Roe v. Wade is overturned, there is no Colorado law in place that would protect the right to obtain a safe, legal abortion, which is why this bill is so important,” Gonzales said in a Wednesday statement. “The Reproductive Health Equity Act will enshrine the right to abortion access in our state’s laws, ensuring that every Coloradan is guaranteed their fundamental right to reproductive freedom and can make their own decisions about their life and their future.”
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in December on a federal case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, challenging a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The court’s conservative majority suggested a willingness to consider rolling back the abortion rights that have been in place since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
Coloradans already have access to late-term abortion, and that’s not likely to change regardless of how the Supreme Court rules on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. But sponsors of HB-1279 say the bill would prevent cities and counties from passing local restrictions on abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. It wouldn’t add any reproductive rights in the state that don’t already exist, though, and a future legislature could undo its provisions given the political will.
On March 11 and 12, the state House of Representatives spent nearly 24 hours debating the same bill, championed by House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood. As in the Senate, Republicans had proposed a series of amendments that were all rejected by the majority.
The House on March 14 voted 40-24 to pass HB-1279 along party lines with one Democrat, Rep. Iman Jodeh of Aurora, excused.
A ‘proactive step’
Leading state Republicans — who are on a quest to flip the state Senate this year to GOP control — have cast the legislation as “extreme.”
“This is a dark day for the Colorado Democrat Party and any individual who respects the sanctity of life,” Colorado GOP Chair Kristi Burton Brown said in a Wednesday statement. “If Jared Polis decides to sign this extreme abortion bill, he will put Colorado’s abortion laws on par with China and North Korea. The Democrats have chosen to spend weeks of this session pushing a barbaric abortion bill, instead of fighting for issues that would help Colorado families.”
Before being elected state GOP chair last year, Burton Brown rose to prominence in Colorado conservative circles as an anti-abortion activist and sponsor of the 2008 “personhood amendment,” which sought to outlaw abortion by defining life as beginning at conception. Voters rejected that ballot measure, and two subsequent initiatives in 2010 and 2014, by large margins.
The Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or COLOR, backed HB-1279 along with Cobalt, a statewide reproductive rights organization. Both groups praised the bill sponsors in a Wednesday statement.
“Sen. Julie Gonzales has been an absolute champion for RHEA, and we are in deep appreciation and gratitude for her work, as well as the many hours and late nights from our House sponsors,” COLOR President Dusti Gurule said. “Passing the Reproductive Health Equity Act is a historic, proactive step in protecting the ability of all Coloradans to access to the reproductive healthcare they need and deserve, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigration status, religious affiliation, or income.”
“As abortion access hangs in the balance at the Supreme Court, RHEA ensures these fundamental rights are protected in Colorado state law,” said Cobalt President Karen Middleton. “RHEA should serve as encouragement to policymakers and advocates in other states that boldly protecting reproductive rights, including abortion rights, can be done and it’s the right thing to do.”
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