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The Battle Over Abortion Could Make a Big Difference in Colorado This Election

Pro-choice advocates in Colorado are concerned about the future of abortion access in a state that’s subjected to a raft of proposed laws that would impose heavy restrictions on abortion providers, and bestow human rights to fetuses.
Photo by David Zalubowski/AP

For Sonia Lujan, the drive up to the Planned Parenthood clinic in Denver was more stressful than the abortion she was about to get.

A sea of pro-life activists waving pamphlets and blown-up images of Jesus and decapitated fetuses screamed and threw doll parts at Lujan and her mother as they parked and walked inside Planned Parenthood that day in 2012.

"They kept chanting and calling me a whore the whole time. It was mayhem," Lujan recalled. She was two months along in an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially fatal scenario in which the fertilized egg attaches inside a fallopian tube instead of the uterus.


"It wasn't something I wanted to give up my life for. And I didn't want a baby," said Lujan, who was a senior in college at the time without a job or health insurance. "I just wasn't prepared to raise a child."

Though the protesters made her nervous, nothing they said could change her mind. "But the whole thing did open my eyes to a war that's happening with women today, still," Lujan said.

That became all the more palpable again last November when a gunman, who describes himself as a "warrior for the babies," opened fire at the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, killing three and injuring nine.

Lujan, like many other pro-choice advocates in Colorado, is concerned about the future of abortion access in a state that's subjected to a raft of proposed laws that would impose heavy restrictions on abortion providers, and bestow human rights to fetuses — also known as "personhood" measures. The presidential election in November has thrown these issues into sharper relief, especially in the face of Republican candidates who are openly hostile about abortion access.

And because Colorado is deeply purple, known for having a significant number of unaffiliated voters, and is embroiled in the choice debate, the state serves as a microcosm for the rest of the country.

Watch the VICE News documentary, America's Election 2016: Pro-Choice in Colorado: 

Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, told VICE News that even though Colorado was the first state to legalize abortions, and its legislature is currently led by Democrats and thus largely pro-choice, reproductive rights shouldn't be taken for granted.


"If the mood of the electorate changes, that's concerning here because there are a lot of laws that hang in the balance," she said. "Depending on who is ultimately president come November, we could see a change in policies almost immediately."

This month, Colorado legislators rejected two anti-abortion bills, one that would have outlawed abortion in the state altogether, and another that would have allowed murder charges to be laid against someone who kills a fetus. Other bills like these have been put forward in recent years, in one form or another, as part of a larger push by pro-life groups around the country to restrict abortions at the state level.

Although they haven't been successful in Colorado yet, Middleton worries that it's slowly getting easier for anti-abortion and personhood measures to become law.

"Voters are tired and confused, they're tired of seeing it on the ballot. So the energy it takes to defeat it each time, probably has more voters more complacent each time," she said. "And that's what the other side is hoping, they're hoping lawmakers get tired and stop working to defeat it. They increasingly use misleading language, and are trying other ways to chip away at the basic access question. We're seeing a lot more bills at the legislature, far more than we've seen in prior years."

On top of that, inadequate access to abortion services is still a problem throughout the state, she explained, as more than 65% of counties do not have an abortion provider. There's also a constitutional amendment in the state that says no state funds may be used for abortion, which means groups like Planned Parenthood can't use a woman's Medicaid to pay for her abortion.


"It's a dangerous situation," said Middleton. "When people have to travel and take significant time off work, that's a barrier especially for poor women who don't have the resources to seek medical care they need, when they need it."

But for those on the pro-life side, it's advocates like Middleton and clinics such as Planned Parenthood that limit choices for pregnant women in Colorado, and provide incomplete information on their options.

'Women have abortions whether they are legal or not, whether they are safe or not, whether they are easy to access or not, and that's the reality.'

Diane Foley, a pediatrician and president of Life Network, a Christian group that operates the Colorado Springs Pregnancy Center, told VICE News that most pregnant women considering abortion change their minds after they go there.

"We find many women, the reason they make a choice not to parent or not to make an adoption plan is because they don't think they have the support. So one of the things we try to do is just have people talk about what they're feeling and their ideas as they work through a solution," she said.

Her group offers extensive counseling, bible study, parenting classes, and "post-abortion" support. It also has a curriculum parents can complete to earn "baby bucks" used to purchase baby supplies there.

More than 45 "pregnancy crisis centers" operate across the state, often close to Planned Parenthood clinics and other places that provide abortions. There are approximately 42 abortion providers in Colorado.


Pregnancy crisis centers are part of the pro-life movement's ground campaign to provide counseling and abortion alternatives to women going through an unplanned pregnancy. However, the groups, usually affiliated with conservatives Christian churches, aren't always up front about their religious ties, and often look like an average medical clinic.

"I have very strong feelings that an infant is another life and that the choice occurred before the pregnancy," Foley said. "And at that point there's another life that their choice needs to be important too."

When it comes to state and federal legislation, Foley said she would like to see further restrictions on abortion.

"The way abortions are done, there is not enough supervision or regulation for them and it puts women at risk. There are not the same standards as other surgical centers, there are not the same requirements in terms of having the same hospital privileges in case something goes wrong," she said.

"What I'm concerned about is that there is a sense that it's healthcare for women and there are a lot of things about it that are not good healthcare," Foley added.

In 2015, a measure requiring that all abortion clinics have hospital admitting privileges failed to pass at Colorado's House health committee. Republican Sen. Patrick Neville, who sponsored the bill, argued that there are "zero licensing requirements" on clinics, just as there are on the individuals who provide abortions.


Related: Planned Parenthood Says Colorado Shooting Was a Hate Crime Caused by 'Toxic Rhetoric'

It's this sort of rhetoric, though, that can chip away at women's legal rights to abortion, Vicki Cowart, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, told VICE News at the clinic in Denver. And therefore it raises what's at stake on the question of abortion rights after the election.

"Colorado voters believe that women should be able to make their own decisions about these things that are so personal, so private. And they get that, regardless of what their party is," she said.

And that sort of momentum and dedication can easily be translated into other states, such as Texas and Mississippi, that have implemented a host of anti-abortion legislation, Cowart added.

"Women have abortions whether they are legal or not, whether they are safe or not, whether they are easy to access or not, and that's the reality."

Cowart says the issue has become so important this election that, for the first time in its 100-year history, Planned Parenthood has endorsed a candidate — Hillary Clinton — in the primary.

But, in the end, the election outcome won't affect the group's mission in the state.

"We've operated in climates that have not been friendly to women's health, we've operated in climates that are more friendly on women's health," said Cowart. "We provide care no matter what. Whether the challenges come to us politically, through protesters, or, even as we've seen here in Colorado with the recent shooting, we open the doors again, and we provide the healthcare."

Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne