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Rural Coloradans show support for abortion-rights amendment

Patty Coen (right) and her sister (left) attend a march in Montrose, Colorado to protest the reversal of Roe v. Wade. Photo courtesy of Patty Coen.
Initiative 89, aiming to protect abortion rights in Colorado by including it in the state’s constitution, made it on the 2024 general election ballot

Patty Coen was able to finish her bachelor’s degree because she had an abortion. Ever since, the Southwest Colorado resident has been an advocate for abortion access and reproductive justice.

She worked as a nurse at a reproductive-care agency in Durango for about seven years. When a campaign started to protect abortion rights by getting a state constitutional amendment on the ballot, she headed the petition drive in rural Montezuma County, where she lives.

She said her personal story and her experience working at Planned Parenthood compelled her to get involved.

Patty Coen stands outside her home in Montezuma County, wearing a shirt that says “I will aid and abet abortion.” (Photo by Ilana Newman)
A wall in Patty Coen’s sewing room, decorated with pro-choice stickers and art. (Photo by Ilana Newman)

“I worked at Planned Parenthood when Texas shut down abortion as unnecessary health care during COVID,” Coen said. “So I saw the people with uteruses drive 12 hours, have their abortion, get right back in the car and drive back to Texas.”

Coen said she wanted to make sure that voters in Montezuma County had a chance to help get the amendment on the November ballot.

“I really wanted our county to be represented,” Coen said.

Although rural voters as a group are more likely than voters in large cities to support conservative candidates, that doesn’t necessarily translate into anti-abortion preferences. A poll of rural voters in swing states to be released this month by the Rural Democracy Initiative found that three-quarters of respondents said women should be in charge of decisions about abortion.

“I know we [people who support abortion rights] are here,” Coen said. “You see the loud people of hate, and it’s like, yeah, they’re loud and they make you think they’re a lot of ’em. But I mean, wow, we got a lot of signatures.”

Abortion is currently legal in Colorado at all stages of pregnancy. The proposed Initiative 89 seeks to amend the Colorado constitution so that the legality of abortion in the state cannot change in the future. It also would allow for public health insurance funds to cover abortion, overturning a current constitutional amendment prohibiting state insurance and Medicaid from paying for abortion care.

To get on the ballot in Colorado, initiative petitions that seek to make changes to the constitution need at least 124,238 signatures with signatures from at least two percent of the registered voters in each of the 35 Colorado state senate districts.

Cobalt, a Colorado abortion advocacy nonprofit, helped organize the signature gathering for Initiative 89, along with a coalition of organizations under the name Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom.

According to Laura Chapin, communications consultant for Cobalt, the petition was turned in to the Colorado Secretary of State with 230,000 signatures on April 18, a week earlier than the deadline of April 26th. On May 17, 2024, the Proposed Initiative 89 qualified for the November ballot.

“​​Rural Colorado was pretty awesome because people are really motivated. If you come to them and say, ‘we want to put abortion rights in the Colorado constitution,’ you get a really strong response. We’ve been really pleased with the rural outreach and the rural response,” said Chapin.

Coen, who lives in Montezuma County, said that even within Colorado there is not enough access to abortion care in the more rural regions, like Southwest Colorado. When Coen worked there, the Durango Planned Parenthood offered surgical abortions, but now only offers medical abortions.

The Cortez Planned Parenthood, in Montezuma County, also offers medical abortions, but for a large chunk of the region including Montrose and the San Juan Mountain towns, accessing abortion care means driving over the San Juan Mountains to one of two Southwestern Planned Parenthoods, east to Salida, or north to Glenwood Springs, a trip of at least 2 hours and including several mountain passes depending on the direction.

At the same time that the petition drive to get Initiative 89 on the ballot was underway, a petition for an opposing initiative was also underway in Colorado to ban abortion after conception. The initiative did not receive enough signatures to appear on the ballot.

Abortion-rights petitions to add abortion access to state constitutions as a 2024 ballot initiative are in progress or have already been successful in many states including Arizona, Nebraska, Missouri, Maryland, Florida, and others. However, most of these measures only protect abortion until viability, which is not the case in Colorado. Colorado allows for abortion throughout the pregnancy.

Montezuma County and Southwest Colorado’s location in the Four Corners makes it the ideal destination for out-of-state abortion seekers from neighboring states with harsher abortion laws like Arizona and Utah, or further away in Texas and Oklahoma.

“We’ve got to be a refuge state for this. We’re surrounded by states that are 100% against abortion,” said Coen.