In 1967, six years prior to the Supreme Court's Roe v Wade decision making abortion legal in the United States, Colorado became the first state to legalize the procedure in the case of rape, incest or danger to the mother. Nearly half-a-century later, women living in El Paso, Pueblo and surrounding counties must travel outside the region to access abortion services.
Colorado Springs was once home to two Planned Parenthood clinics, which were consolidated into one on Centennial Boulevard, in 2013. That clinic was forced to close its doors last November after a deranged gunman stormed through them. The region's only abortion provider became a crime scene that remained blocked for weeks before a construction crew could begin repairing the damaged building.
"We are rebuilding. We will reopen," says Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, though an exact date is unknown.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, PPRM called its patients to help them plan their healthcare in the absence of the Colorado Springs clinic. Cowart points out the vast majority of the 8,000 patients the Springs clinic sees each year visit for services unrelated to abortion, such as cancer screenings, STD testing and birth control prescriptions. Those services can be obtained elsewhere in the Springs, but the three percent of patients who Cowart says visit PPRM for abortion services must travel outside the region.
"If there's a part of this that's the worst for us, it's not being able to send them down the street for care," Cowart says. "That's been really painful for us."
About half a mile down the street from the Centennial Boulevard Planned Parenthood clinic, the Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center offers a very different range of services. The faith-based nonprofit opened in the 1980s and is staffed mostly by "client advocates."
Dr. Diane Foley, president of CSPC, says the center has seen an uptick in patients since the nearby Planned Parenthood attack.
Dr. Foley, a licensed physician with a background in pediatric gynecology, says the CSPC informs clients of "all" their options: "We talk about adoption, parenting — and we offer the opportunity to pray if they choose prayer. But we never force that on anyone."
That troubles Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-choice Colorado, whose organization works to counter legislative efforts to weaken reproductive rights
"We've seen a huge upswing in legislative attacks on abortion care," Middleton notes, pointing to a report from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute that counts 288 new abortion restrictions nationally between 2011 and 2015, about the same number seen over the prior 15 year combined. "And we're expecting even more this year. Already on the first day [of the Colorado legislative session], we've got an anti-abortion bill that's identical to one that failed last year."
"Bill for an Act Concerning Offenses Against an Unborn Child" comes courtesy of Colorado Springs Representatives Janak Joshi, Paul Lundeen, Lois Landgraf and Gordon Klingenschmitt. If passed, the legislation would allow prosecutors to bring murder or assault charges against people who "cause death or injury to an unborn member of the species homo sapiens."
Pro-choice advocates worry this new class of victim — the "unborn homo sapien" — is merely a Trojan horse for Personhood, or the idea that life begins at conception and should be so defined by law.
"I mean, voters have rejected Personhood three times already and by big margins," Middleton points out. "We don't expect this bill to make it past first committee."
With a split General Assembly and a Democratic governor, violent behavior on the ground is perhaps more threatening than legislation to reproductive rights in Colorado. After an anti-abortion front group, Center for Medical Progress, released a series of sting videos last summer that purported to show Planned Parenthood profiting from the illegal sale of "baby parts," pro-choice advocates say pro-life protesters have increased their numbers and ferocity. No matter that the videos have been proven false.
Irene Luckett is a regular demonstrator at RMPP. She and her pro-choice cohort set up on the sidewalk opposite a group of mostly older men who pray, protest and provoke. Luckett's group calls them the "Nutters."
"Definitely since the videos, more numbers have been turning out," Luckett says. "The signs got nastier, the yelling, bumping — it all escalated."
40 Days for Life, a large vigil that takes place every other year outside RMPP, was scheduled for this February. But according to a statement released by Michele Mason, who directs the effort, it is "God's will" to call off this year's event: "There is a lot of pain, and there are heightened emotions at this time. In a normal situation, I would want to be out there praying, but this is a time to ask God to heal our community."
She emphasizes that the effort to end abortion is not over, adding, "We will pray at home, we will pray in churches and we will be doing other things behind the scenes."
Cowart says no PPRM staff has quit since November, but the national organization has lost employees since the fraudulent videos were released.
"But on the other hand," she says, "the number of volunteers, activists and applicants for jobs has gone dramatically up. We're drowning in cards and cookies."
Cowart has a hardened outlook on the culture war: "Is it worse? Yes. Has it been horrible all along? Yes."
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