Colorado became the first state to decriminalize abortion in 1967, allowing abortions under limited circumstances.
Since then, Colorado voters and lawmakers have turned back legislation and ballot measures aimed at curtailing abortion, with lawmakers taking action earlier this year to encode abortion rights in state law with the Reproductive Health Equity Act.
But the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling striking down Roe v. Wade on June 24 will affect abortion in Colorado, with the impacts felt in Durango, providers and advocates say. With abortion left to the states, they eye strengthening reproductive health care, supportive resources and legal protections in Colorado.
For anti-abortion advocates in Durango, the Supreme Court’s ruling is not an end but a signal to bolster their efforts locally and in Colorado.
“The focus has been on the people in the states who will completely lose access, (as) we should be, but it does not mean that (in) states like Colorado there is some panacea idea of abortion access and people can just get abortions easily,” said Kate Coleman-Minahan, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado College of Nursing and a social scientist who studies abortion care.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling, LifeGuard, a Durango anti-abortion group, received an outpouring of support, said Martha Sandner, executive director for LifeGuard.
“It was great. We had a lot of people calling in support. We had a lot of people dropping in in support,” she said. “It was good. This is something that we’ve worked toward for a long time.”
Coleman-Minahan’s reaction was one of fear.
“As a researcher, I do interviews with people who have had or considered abortions. How hard it already has been for them and what it’s like to be forced to continue a pregnancy and deliver when that is not what is the best for you, it’s cruel,” Coleman-Minahan, who moved to Durango in January, said. “It’s torture to somebody’s life and their well-being and their self-determination.”
A week removed from the overturning of Roe v. Wade, there is still uncertainty as trigger laws go into effect and states around the country move to prohibit or further restrict abortion.
But in Durango and Colorado, the impacts will likely be significant.
In Colorado, 11,580 women received abortions in 2021. Another 9,869 had abortions in 2020, according to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data.
Since Texas Senate Bill 8, the state’s six-week abortion ban, went into effect in September, Colorado abortion clinics have seen more than 1,700 patients from Texas, said Dr. Kristina Tocce, vice president and medical director of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.
But those patients are just a fraction of the more than 50,000 women who seek abortions in Texas each year.
According to a March 2022 study from the University of Texas at Austin, 45% of all of the women who have been displaced by Texas SB-8 sought care in Oklahoma. However, Oklahoma completely banned abortion in May.
“We’ve seen so many patients and we’re seeing a sliver,” Tocce said. “Now that Oklahoma has enacted a ban as well, all of those patients that have been displaced from Texas have to find other places to go.”
Arizona and Utah are also moving to restrict or ban abortion.
A number of patients from Utah visit Durango’s Planned Parenthood clinic for abortions, which is one of two facilities in the Four Corners along with Planned Parenthood’s clinic in Cortez. Patients from Arizona often travel to Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains’ clinics in Las Vegas, Tocce said.
In 2020, more than 13,000 women received abortions in Arizona. Utah reported 2,922 abortions in 2019, the last year data is available.
“I think we’ll always see those geographical links,” Tocce said. “However, all of the abortion bans and trigger laws have not gone into effect yet, so I wonder how it’ll look in the future because so many places are going to have no access at all that patients might not be traveling to the closest destination. They might be traveling to any destination that can accommodate them in a time frame that works.”
Adding to the influx, clinics in Southwest Colorado and throughout the state could see more patients from New Mexico.
The University of Texas at Austin study found that the number of women from Texas seeking abortions in New Mexico often outpaced the state’s monthly averages for all patients.
And in Colorado, more than a third of all pregnancies in the state are unintended, according to CDPHE data.
For women in Durango and Southwest Colorado, the sheer number of patients seeking abortion care will likely mean longer wait times and delays in their own abortion care, a trend that the state has already seen, Coleman-Minahan said.
Tocce recently spoke with a provider in another safe-haven state that reported its first abortion patient from Colorado. The patient left Colorado because she could get an appointment faster in another state and had the means to travel, Tocce said.
In recent years, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains has expanded appointment availability, days of service, physical clinics and telemedicine to meet the demand that already exists in Colorado.
The organization has also expanded its patient navigation program to help women who face barriers accessing abortions.
With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood plans to bolster that work, though the degree to which the expansion of services will be able to meet the growing need is unclear.
“We still are not able to meet the demand and the demand is going to be so high. What is that going to mean to a local patient if the wait times are weeks out for something as time-sensitive as abortion care?” Tocce said. “That’s going to really change the trajectory of our local patients being able to access care as well.
“The ripple effect can’t be understated,” she said. “(The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision) is going to affect everyone.”
The potential for more patients in Durango changes little for Sandner and LifeGuard.
“If there is an uptick in clientele over here across the street (at Planned Parenthood), we’re here to help whoever will talk to us,” she said. “We’re not a one and done down here. We're not here just to save a baby and forget about a mom.”
LifeGuard does not have a prescribed program. Rather, it aims to meet all of the needs of women at no cost, Sandner said.
The group says it assists women with housing, prenatal appointments and has even provided women with cooking lessons and helped them obtain their driver’s license. When the baby is born, LifeGuard aids mothers with child care for however long is necessary, sometimes for years.
“For our mission here at LifeGuard, (the Supreme Court’s decision) changes nothing,” Sandner said. “Our focus has always been to help these young moms and the babies as long as it takes.”
But while the striking down of Roe v. Wade will not influence LifeGuard’s mission, the ruling does represent a significant win for LifeGuard and other anti-abortion groups, and Sandner celebrated the decision to give states oversight over abortion.
“Dropping Roe v. Wade was a good thing for many, many states, so of course we’re happy about that,” she said.
However, the ruling did not placate the group, which plans to continue to organize outside of Durango’s Planned Parenthood clinic and to push for abortion restrictions in Colorado.
“We aren’t content,” Sandner said. “If we can help facilitate the change of that culture, then that’s what we would love to do. We’re trying to educate, to change minds one at a time to give women other options. We feel like women are being sold short in thinking that abortion is their best option.”
For abortion providers and advocates, the vacuum created by the loss of constitutional protections serves as catalyst for more action to protect abortion in Colorado.
The Reproductive Health Equity Act was the first step in ensuring abortion rights in Colorado, said Laura Chapin, a communications consultant for Cobalt, a Colorado abortion-rights group.
“We view this as a two-step process. We got the state law passed, and it’s something that’s broadly supported by a wide cross section of Coloradans. The next step will be a constitutional measure and we’re looking at doing that in 2024,” Chapin said.
Enshrining abortion rights in the Colorado Constitution would make them harder to repeal if the administration changes, Coleman-Minahan said.
Cobalt and abortion-rights advocates also aim to repeal Colorado’s constitutional amendment approved in 1984 by a less than 1% margin that prohibited the use of public funds to support abortion in the state.
The amendment affects state employees, whose insurance cannot cover abortion, as well as Medicaid patients, placing more pressure on external abortion funding like Cobalt’s, which is increasingly under pressure as more women seek assistance.
Coleman-Minahan said abortion advocates should also look to reverse Colorado’s parental notification law, which requires those younger than 18 to tell their parent before they get an abortion.
The law poses a significant barrier to anyone younger than 18 trying to come to Colorado from another state, and traumatizes young people, Coleman-Minahan said.
But both Coleman-Minahan and Chapin acknowledged that, even with state efforts, federal protections are the only way to fully guarantee abortion rights and ensure unimpeded access in Colorado.
“Providers are doing their absolute best, but there’s no way in a larger sense that abortion remains accessible when half the country shuts it down,” Chapin said.
Though the Supreme Court’s ruling has grim implications for abortion providers and advocates in Colorado, Tocce maintains hope.
“I am confident that we live in a state that has been proactive in protecting abortion access, and that as more and more things like this come down, we will figure out a way to keep both patients and providers safe and protected here in Colorado,” she said.