Govt. Jared Polis on Monday signed legislation affirming the right to an abortion in Colorado regardless of whatever action the US Supreme Court takes later this year.
“This bill codifies a person’s right to make reproductive health care decisions free from government interference,” Polis said upon signing House Bill 1279 into law.
That’s a reference to two cases in front of the court, one from Mississippi, the other from Texas, both of which would ban abortions early in the pregnancy. Some expect the court, which has a conservative majority, to either overturn Roe v. Wade or weaken it substantially.
Known as the Reproductive Health Equity Act, HB 1279 establishes a fundamental right to continue a pregnancy and give birth, or to have an abortion. The bill also says fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses do not have independent rights under the law, and it prohibits state and local public entities from denying or restricting an individual’s right to use or refuse contraception, or to either continue a pregnancy or have an abortion .
In guaranteeing the right to an abortion, Colorado became the second state this year to adopt a law protecting legal access to the procedure. In January, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed a similar law. So, far three states, plus the District of Columbia, have codified the right to an abortion throughout pregnancy, while 12 other states explicitly permit abortion prior to viability, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Meanwhile, 21 states have adopted statutes that could be used to restrict abortion. In 12 of those states, overturning Roe v. Wade would trigger an abortion ban.
Supporters see the measure as a preemptive strike against the US Supreme Court potentially rolling back federal protections for abortion, a decision that would shift the fight to the states. They argue the bill serves as a guarantee women can continue to access the procedure.
Critics, raised several points against the measure, arguing that it is so broad it could block protests against abortion clinics or interfere with local government zoning laws. They also warned that passage of HB 1279 could risk a situation in Colorado similar to what happened in Pennsylvania in 2010, when then-Dr. Kermit Gosnell was convicted of running a for-profit abortion mill that resulted in the death of a patient and three illegal late-term abortions. Gosnell, who was also convicted of drug dealing, is serving a life sentence.
The bill signing ceremony was held on the back patio at the governor’s mansion amidst tighter-than-normal security. Two anti-abortion protesters held signs along 8th Avenue, in front of the mansion and out of sight of those attending the ceremony.
Polis said noted that, since 1973, Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land. But the law has been eroded, and it’s only a matter of time before federal protections for abortion cease to exist, he said.
Colorado has been and will continue to be a pro-choice state, he said, adding no matter what the US Supreme Court does, those in Colorado can choose when to have children or get an abortion without fear of legal consequences.
Polis also pointed to states, such as Texas, Kentucky and Arizona, accusing them of “enormous government overreach.”
“Colorado can now assure our residents that the very intimate right to proceed with family planning and pregnancy will be protected,” he added.
In a signing statement, Polis pointed out the law does not change the current framework for parental notification that already exists in the statutes.
“This bill simply maintains this status quo regardless of what happens at the federal level and preserves all existing constitutional rights and obligations,” he said.
The debate over HB 1279 in the legislature was likely the longest in state history, with more than 66 hours of discussion in the House and Senate, including a marathon 23-hour debate in the House on March 11 and 12.
Surrounded by dozens of Democratic lawmakers and advocates, HB 1279 sponsor House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, noted that lengthy debate, stating legislators would have stayed as long as it took to ensure the bill passed.
“We don’t want to see what happened in Texas happen in Colorado,” she said. “It’s too bad we have to do this,” but lawmakers will do their job to protect the people of Colorado, she added.
Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Greenwood Village, who co-sponsored the bill in the House, praised the coalition of more than 50 organizations that worked for HB 1279’s passage.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, said Colorado has always been a leader in reproductive rights, but the times required lawmakers to act again. She said the coalition not only helped work for the measure’s adoption but also worked to defeat dozens of anti-abortion bills in the past decade, as well as four anti-abortion ballot initiatives that voters rejected by large margins.
Gonzales said the new law is about freedom and power – the freedom to decide when or whether or how to become a parent, and “the power to make your own decision about your own body and health without asking for permission from a politician.” Reproductive justice is economic, gender and racial justice, she added.
Dr. Warren Hern, who who runs the Boulder Abortion Clinic, told Colorado Politics the legislation is the most important measure for women in Colorado since 1967, when another abortion bill passed in the General Assembly. He also pointed out that the 1967 law was sponsored by then-Rep. Dick Lamm, a Denver Democrat, Sen. John Bermingham, a Republican from Denver, and was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Love.
“It’s a strong signal to the entire country that we value women, freedom and democracy, and that this is a critical part of women’s health care and we are going to protect it,” Hern said.
Polis’ signature on HB 1279 is unlikely to be the last word on the issue, as legal challenges are expected from groups, such as the Colorado Catholic Conference and Colorado Right to Life.
Backers also are planning a ballot measure in 2024 to put the right to an abortion into the state Constitution.
The debate over in the Colorado Assembly brought about personal stories from legislators, some publicly sharing their experiences for the first time.
Rep. Tonya Van Beber, R-Eaton, said she was born at 22 weeks and was not supposed to live.
“We risk the safety … of those who have no voice,” she told the House.
Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, D-Fort Collins, formerly a Lutheran pastor, talked of the experience he and his wife had when she had a miscarriage. It was the first time he’s spoken of it publicly, he said.
“I fear for another time, another political whim, when women won’t receive the reproductive health care my wife received in that moment, or being forced to register. It’s a fundamental right,” he told Colorado Politics.
Rep. Tracey Burnett, D-Boulder, suffered multiple miscarriages throughout her life. During her final pregnancy, she spent 12 hours fearing another miscarriage, and the pregnancy put her own life at risk, she told the House, the first time she’d ever spoken of it in public. A decision to end the pregnancy would have been hers and hers alone, she said.
“I kept hearing stories [from the other side] on late term abortions,” she told Colorado Politics.
First-year lawmaker Rep. Mandy Lindsey, D-Aurora, told Colorado Politics it’s been clear that Democratic lawmakers are very concerned about rollback of reproductive rights. She grew up thinking Roe v. Wade was settled, but now he’s under attack.
“We’re afraid and we have to be pro-active,” she said.
HB 1279 is the first abortion-related bill to reach the full House or Senate since 2003. The 2003 legislation put into state law the parental notification statute, tied in part to a 1998 vote-approved ballot measure on the same issue. The legislation was developed after the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded in 2002 that the ballot measure was unconstitutional.