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What happens here if the Supreme Court rolls back the landmark abortion ruling? 

Roe and CO

click to enlarge Abortion opponents hold signs outside Planned Parenthood as others pray a rosary. - FAITH MILLER
  • Faith Miller
  • Abortion opponents hold signs outside Planned Parenthood as others pray a rosary.

In the wake of laws recently passed in Alabama, Georgia and other states that greatly restrict or effectively ban abortion, you may be wondering: How solid is Roe v. Wade?

As a parade of states pass legislation in an apparent attempt to force the Supreme Court to reconsider its 1973 ruling in the landmark case, many advocates on both sides of the issue think it’s only a matter of time until conservative state legislatures have full rein to do as they please.

“I think that there’s a very good chance that a decision will come out of the Supreme Court within the next 12 to 18 months gutting or overturning Roe v. Wade,” says Lizzy Hinkley, reproductive rights policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado.

Alabama’s law, the most restrictive of the bunch, signed into law May 15, is set to take effect in November. It bans all abortions — even in cases of rape or incest — except when there’s a serious risk to the mother. Physicians who violate the law face up to 99 years in prison.

Missouri’s House and Senate passed a law May 17 that bans abortions after eight weeks, and comes with a prison sentence of up to 15 years for physicians. They added an “emergency clause,” so it goes into effect as soon as Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who has said he supports the bill, signs it.

Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio and Georgia have all approved abortion bans after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks. None of those laws have yet gone into effect, and abortion rights advocates are hoping to strike them down first — as they were able to do in Iowa and North Dakota.

The ambiguous language in Georgia’s law led some to believe (owing partly to a viral tweet) that it would punish women who had abortions. In fact, the law doesn’t explicitly say who would be punished, but appears to target people who perform abortions. Violators get a prison sentence of one to 10 years.

So what about Colorado? Religious and conservative abortion opponents certainly still have a presence in our state. But Colorado’s laws are considered “pro-choice,” Democrats control the Legislature, and Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has said he opposes restrictions on abortion. Secretary of State Jena Griswold even banned her staff from traveling to Alabama. Should the Supreme Court decide to make abortion a states’ rights issue, not much is likely to change in the Centennial State.

Colorado clinics could, however, see an influx of people coming here from other states to access safe abortions and reproductive care, says Vicki Cowart, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains.

“If you look around Colorado [at] Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas — all of these states are likely to move backwards and make it less possible for women to have safe and legal abortions,” Cowart says. “... It’s a really terrible thing that your right to health care depends on your ZIP code. But that’s where it’s going.”

About 10 percent of Planned Parenthood’s patients already come from other states that have greater restrictions on abortion, Cowart explains: “It’s something that we already deal with. When a person comes to Planned Parenthood, we open the door to them.”

None of the new laws explicitly prohibit women from getting abortions in other states, Hinkley says, and are thus “open to interpretation.” But Planned Parenthood is already preparing to hire more staff, increase hours and expand its use of telehealth technology (which allows patients to request prescriptions for birth control and urinary tract infections) in case surrounding states further restrict abortion, Cowart says.

Colorado does prohibit minors from having the procedure without parental consent (unless they obtain a judicial waiver), and prohibits the use of state funding to pay for abortions — meaning the procedure is not covered for Medicaid recipients and state employees.

That said, the state has few restrictions on the procedure itself. Women can obtain outpatient abortions for up to 26 weeks after pregnancy begins, and up to 34 weeks in cases involving fetal anomalies, genetic disorders and severe medical issues. (A full-term pregnancy is usually about 40 weeks.)

“Colorado is a freedom-loving and pro-choice state, and we really believe deeply in the right of Coloradans to make their own decisions and not have government force decisions on them,” Polis said at a campaign event with Planned Parenthood in August. “... As governor, I won’t let Donald Trump or the Supreme Court make one of the most intimate decisions that women will make in their lives for those who face it.”

But having Polis in the governor’s office hasn’t kept conservative lawmakers from sponsoring bills like Alabama’s at the state Legislature.

House Bill 1103, “Protect Human Life at Conception,” was one of several annual attempts by conservatives to make abortion a class 1 felony in most cases. The 2019 bill was led by Reps. Stephen Humphrey, R-Eaton, and Lori Saine, R-Firestone, and 21 other state lawmakers signed on as sponsors — including El Paso County Republican Reps. Lois Landgraf, Larry Liston, Shane Sandridge and Dave Williams.

After hearing hours of testimony, the House Health & Insurance committee voted along party lines to postpone the bill indefinitely.

Colorado voters have also rejected three ballot initiatives — in 2008, 2010 and 2014 — that would have amended the state Constitution, changing the definition of “person” to include an unborn fetus.

The odds may seem stacked against them — at least in Colorado — but Julie Bailey, vice president of Pikes Peak Citizens for Life and an abortion opponent, believes people who consider themselves “pro-life” are becoming more energized.

Bailey co-directs the local chapter of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, one of several groups with a regular presence outside Planned Parenthood’s Westside clinic northwest of Fillmore Street and Centennial Boulevard. They hold signs advertising free counseling, STI/STD and pregnancy testing, and ultrasounds at the nearby Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center. They attempt to intercept would-be Planned Parenthood patients with snacks and flyers.

“My last training for Sidewalk Advocates had one person show up in November,” Bailey says. “I had a training in May that had 25 people show up and 13 more that wanted to come but couldn’t come... People are really feeling motivated to do something.”

Bailey believes that’s because of anger over a law that recently passed in New York that removed some restrictions on abortion, as well as the release of Unplanned, an anti-abortion film about a former Planned Parenthood clinic director.

Other groups that stand outside Planned Parenthood sometimes hold signs with graphic abortion images and, in Bailey’s words, “seem condemning of women,” but Bailey believes that’s the wrong way to go.

“What we’re trying to do is not preach at women, not condemn them for choosing to use Planned Parenthood, but rather to tell them that there are other options,” she explains.

While Bailey believes laws restricting abortion are “steps in the right direction,” she believes what anti-abortion advocates “really need to do is change people’s hearts and minds.”

Some legal scholars believe Alabama’s ban is too extreme to lead to a reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court, which normally tends to make incremental changes through case law.

But Hinkley, the reproductive rights attorney, believes that with a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, a decision that favors anti-abortion advocates is inevitable. In the meantime, the ACLU in Colorado is working with its partners to “expand and protect access” to abortion here, which could mean exploring legislation to require private insurance providers to cover the procedures and possibly a ballot initiative reversing the ban on state funding for abortions, Hinkley says.

One important step in destigmatizing abortion was House Bill 1032, she says, which requires schools that teach sex-ed to provide unbiased and objective information about the procedures.

But that doesn’t change what, for Hinkley, represents a depressing reality: “There will be states in the near future where it’s criminalized for a woman to seek an abortion, and that’s a scary place to be.”

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