Emotionally charged witness testimony on a bill to enshrine the fundamental right to an abortion in Colorado law stretched into the early morning hours Thursday, as snow blanketed the Capitol grounds.
House Bill 22-1279, which sponsors titled the “Reproductive Health Equity Act,” brought hundreds to weigh in on reproductive rights potentially jeopardized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent indication it could reverse or weaken the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
The bill is sponsored by three Democrats and has broad support among Democratic lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Colorado Senate and House of Representatives. House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, state Rep. Meg Froelich of Englewood and state Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver are leading the effort.
After a nearly 14-hour hearing, the House Health and Insurance Committee voted 7 to 4 to approve HB-1279, referring it to the full House of Representatives for a vote. The “no” votes belonged to the four Republicans on the committee, while Democrats were in favor.
If passed and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, HB-1279 would codify the right to have an abortion or to continue a pregnancy, as well as the right to use or refuse contraceptive care. It would also declare that a fertilized egg, embryo or fetus does not have personhood rights under state law. Finally, HB-1279 would explicitly prohibit state and local governments from denying, restricting, interfering with, or discriminating against someone’s reproductive rights.
Republicans on the House Health and Insurance Committee and passionate anti-abortion advocates threw everything they had against HB-1279 during the bill’s first hearing on Wednesday. An outburst from the audience during introductory remarks made for a sobering start to the committee’s deliberations.
“Reproductive health care is vital health care,” Esgar was saying, when a woman began shouting from the audience.
“It’s not health care! It’s killing babies,” the woman cried out. When she didn’t stop shouting after being asked, a sergeant-at-arms escorted her from the hearing room.
HB-1279 won’t necessarily change anything for people seeking abortions, or contraceptive care, in Colorado. They can already access abortions later in pregnancy, and Colorado requires state-regulated health insurance plans to cover contraception. Furthermore, the bill would add reproductive rights to state law, not the state Constitution. The latter would require voter approval and would be more difficult to overturn. However, given the political will, any future legislature could undo the steps that HB-1279 takes to protect abortion rights.
Despite its limited scope, the sponsors say HB-1279 is timely and necessary, because if the Supreme Court overturns past case law establishing the right to abortion, it will prevent cities and counties in Colorado from passing local restrictions.
Getting a constitutional amendment on the ballot “requires a lot of lead time, and the threat to abortion access, we believe, will be urgent,” Esgar said during Wednesday’s hearing. Abortion-rights advocates are preparing a statewide ballot measure for 2024, she said.
In most cases, the Colorado Constitution favors local cities, counties, towns and school districts having control over policy decisions. State Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Penrose Republican, asked the sponsors if “one of the reasons for this bill right now is because we don’t as a state want to allow for local control on this topic.”
“We don’t think a patchwork, piecemeal system based off of local municipalities or counties is equitable for Coloradans,” Esgar replied.
Recent signals from the Supreme Court left abortion-rights advocates wary of such a system materializing in Colorado’s future. In December, the conservative-majority court held oral arguments on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a federal case challenging a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Justices seemed open to the possibility of reversing or weakening past court decisions – including Roe, which granted a legal right to abortion during the first 26 weeks of pregnancy, and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed abortion rights up until the point when a fetus could survive outside the womb. That’s about 24 weeks into a pregnancy.
A decision in Dobbs v. Jackson is expected by early October.
Bolstered by the appointments of conservative justices to the nation’s high court, Republican state legislatures passed 90 laws last year to restrict abortion rights. Nearly half of the states would probably move to ban or greatly restrict abortion in the event the Supreme Court reverses or weakens Roe v. Wade, according to an analysis by The New York Times. Some likely contenders include four states that border Colorado: Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah.
Despite the large number of people signed up to testify in person, the bill sponsors chose to have people signed up in support to testify first, meaning most of those opposed had to wait more than four hours after the committee start time to provide their opinions during a winter weather advisory.
One person who was signed up to testify remotely in support, but began speaking in opposition, was cut off by committee member Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat, when he began calling lawmakers murderers and hypocrites.
Most of those who testified in opposition highlighted moral and often religious objections to abortion. Despite support for HB-1279 from groups that advocate for people of color, opponents claimed that trying to codify the right to abortion was racist and rooted in the American eugenics movement.
Some opponents suggested HB-1279 could make changes to Colorado’s requirement for children under 18 to notify their parents before getting the procedure. Early in the hearing, Republican Rep. Mark Baisley of Roxborough Park asked the sponsors whether the bill would implicate public school districts in its prohibition on interfering with a person’s right to an abortion.
“That is neither the intent nor what is written, is my understanding,” Froelich said.
Already, Colorado prevents parents from interfering with a child’s decision to get an abortion. While the child must notify their parents about the procedure – unless they get a court to exempt them from that requirement – the child’s parents “can’t legally do anything to prevent the abortion from moving forward,” explained Kiki Council, a staff attorney at The Forefront Project, which advocates for reproductive rights.
“Nothing about the (Reproductive Health Equity Act) is going to impact the parental notification scheme,” Council testified.
But some witnesses, including Brittany Vessely of the Colorado Catholic Conference, argued that the bill would effectively get rid of the state’s parental notification requirement for children under 18. Vessely asked for an amendment to clarify that was not the intent.
Groups that have registered in formal opposition to HB-1279 include the Colorado Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the Catholic Church in Colorado; the Centennial Institute, a conservative think tank at Colorado Christian University; and Save the Storks, an anti-abortion nonprofit based in Colorado Springs that fundraises for free ultrasounds for pregnant women.
Vessely testified that a fundamental Catholic principle is that a fetus “must be treated with respect due to the human person.”
By codifying abortion rights, the bill would “allow discrimination based on sex, race and disability” of an unborn baby, Vessely said. “This bill goes too far and it restricts the voices of millions of Coloradans, including pre-born children.”
“This is about our right to make private medical decisions,” Froelich said in her introductory remarks. “I’m a mother of three, and I’ve been pregnant – you know what? It’s none of your business.”
Testifying remotely on behalf of the national advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights, Lizzie Hinkley pointed out that “30 localities in six states” have already passed ballot measures granting personhood to fetuses, “and in 2016, anti-abortion advocates in Colorado Springs tried unsuccessfully.”
But HB-1279 would prevent cities and towns from passing such bans in the future, which would have the effect of banning abortion. The legislation would protect Coloradans’ “right to self-determination and bodily autonomy” no matter where they live in the state, Hinkley said.
Other witnesses emphasized the bill’s benefits for members of marginalized communities, including Black, Latino and LGBTQ people. Some testified about past abortion procedures.
Some witnesses from Christian and Jewish backgrounds pointed to scripture in their testimony in support of the bill. Reps. Luck and Baisley questioned them on their interpretation of Biblical verses, making for an unusual juxtaposition of theological and philosophical debate with testimony on a proposed law.
The two main groups backing HB-1279 are the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or COLOR, and Cobalt, a reproductive-rights advocacy organization. Other supporters include the Colorado Obstetrical and Gynecological Society, Colorado Women’s Bar Association, the League of Women Voters of Colorado, Rose Community Foundation and Interfaith Alliance.
Contrary to some statements from witnesses, HB-1279 would not make any changes to the types of reproductive care that are currently available to people in Colorado.
A fiscal analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff explains that under the federal Public Health Service Act, all contraceptive services “must be provided on a voluntary basis and patients must always have the right to use or not use whatever contraceptive method they prefer.”
Current federal regulations require health care providers that receive federal funding to counsel pregnant people on their options and provide “medically accurate, factual, unbiased information” and referrals to resources for receiving prenatal care, giving up an infant for adoption, or terminating a pregnancy.
Colorado’s Medicaid program currently covers family planning, contraceptive care and related services for members, according to the fiscal analysis of HB-1279. But federal law prohibits Medicaid funds from being used to cover abortions except when the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.
Republicans have been introducing anti-abortion bills at the state Capitol for years, and nothing in HB-1279 would change their ability to do so.
Case in point: Castle Rock Republican Rep. Patrick Neville, who serves on the House Health and Insurance Committee and voted against HB-1279, introduced his own abortion-related bill, House Bill 22-1047, earlier this session. The bill was rejected by the same committee on Feb. 23.
If approved, the bill would have prohibited most abortions in Colorado with no exceptions for rape or incest. Doctors who performed an illegal abortion would have been guilty of a class 1 felony. Pregnant people would not be subject to criminal penalties.
Abortions would have been legal only if “designed or intended to prevent the death of a pregnant mother” if the doctor made “reasonable medical efforts” to save the lives of both mother and child, or if medical treatment such as chemotherapy or removal of an ectopic pregnancy resulted in an accidental abortion.
The House committee also voted down one of Luck’s bills on Feb. 23. House Bill 22-1075 sought to require abortion providers to report non-identifying information about women who obtained abortions to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Doctors and nurses who failed to submit the required information could have been subject to discipline.
The state registrar of vital statistics would have had to create an annual report summarizing the information on women who obtain abortions. While the report itself would be publicly available, the raw data submitted by abortion providers would have been restricted.
Witnesses who testified Wednesday in support of Esgar and Froelich’s HB-1279 said they viewed such legislative attempts as deeply offensive. Some pointed out that Colorado voters have rejected past ballot measures granting personhood to fetuses and restricting abortion in other ways.