As dozens of states respond to the pending reversal of Roe v. Wade by preparing abortion bans, Colorado's Reproductive Health Equity Act gives guaranteed abortion access the force of law. Then it goes even further
In September of last year, my worst nightmare came true: Texas passed a severe ban on abortions and instituted a bounty on anyone attempting to aid or receive abortion health care. It was something right out of a dystopian novel. This had already been a reality for millions of people of color—now it had simply been given the force of law. My gut twisted, thinking of all of the uterus owners in Texas that were now in danger and living in fear for simply wishing to have ownership over their bodies and lives.
The intervening months have seemed bleak as other states have sunk into alignment with Texas: Alabama, Alaska, Utah, Idaho and 22 others have passed bans on abortion or are almost certain to attempt to pass abortion bans if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Last month alone, Oklahoma and Florida signed abortion bans into law.
Yet, amidst all of this turmoil and darkness, Colorado has proved that there is hope for those seeking reproductive care in the form of abortion access.
On April 4th, Gov. Jared Polis signed the Reproductive Health Equity Act (RHEA) into law. RHEA protects every pregnant person’s right to choose to continue their pregnancy or to have an abortion and makes it illegal to deny, restrict, discriminate, or interfere with an individual’s right to choose contraception, continue a pregnancy, or receive an abortion. Further, it states that fertilized eggs, fetuses, and embryos do not have independent rights under Colorado law.
Words cannot begin to convey the amount of relief, gratitude, and joy that are felt by those who have been fighting for abortion rights in the state of Colorado and beyond. I broke down and wept when the news that RHEA had passed was announced because all of the anti-abortion terror that had been accumulating in the news had left me feeling desperate and drained. The news of RHEA passing was an enormous relief and the first moment where I felt truly cared for by the state government.
I had the honor of witnessing local government in action from my couch on Zoom, watching silently and listening to the grueling endeavor of passing a potential law through the many hoops and hurdles of the legislature. This had been my first time participating in the process, and I had tremendous respect for the majority of committee members, the bill sponsors, and the many individuals who gave testimony in favor of RHEA. I was in awe of how these people handled themselves with such decorum and grace. I had been skeptical of anyone who does government work, but watching the lengthy process of legislation was a gratifying experience.
To be sure, plenty of individuals made the process harrowing. I had not given much thought to what anti-abortion testifiers would say, but it was exactly what I should have expected. The majority of pro-forced birth testifiers were Christian and did not bat an eye at their own hypocrisy in bringing their faith into the state arena, nor at their hubris as they claimed to have special knowledge that defied what doctors and science know to be true. These people did not seem to carry an ounce of self-awareness, and it showed.
The hubris did not surprise me. What did was the ludicrous portrait they painted of people seeking abortions. I was shocked as anti-abortion testifiers depicted abortion seekers as hapless victims forced to have abortions against their will. The false narrative imagines a woman being dragged to an abortion clinic by her hair where she is given false information by her doctor. After being compelled to have an abortion, the woman is filled with regret and mourning.
This fiction is not only a lie but an insulting one. The woman seeking an abortion is made to seem juvenile and helpless, not be trusted to make her own healthcare choices. Abortion providers are depicted as cartoonishly sinister and evil. Ironically, this is exactly what occurs when reproductive health is left in the hands of Christians: people are monstrously bullied outside of abortion clinics, and if their only option is to go to a (Christian) crisis pregnancy center, they are fed false information and fear.
I was surprised that many anti-abortion testifiers seemed to truly believe that abortion advocates also think abortion is wrong but are too afraid to speak out. I was shocked that so many believed that abortion advocates were being bullied into giving testimony against their better judgment, as if anti-choice advocates are not the ones who operate on fear, misinformation, and browbeating. In both instances, anti-abortion proponents had projected their own tyrannical tactics upon abortion advocates. This was old news, but a new insight for me.
However, I do not wish to linger on such despicable matters because this is a celebration! After over 50 hours spent legislating and countless more behind the scenes, the overwhelming message that shone through was one of hope. Hope based on grueling work and back-breaking determination, on common but extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, on justice, truth, and the overwhelming joy of being able to chart one’s own course. I haven’t been enamored with Americanism since I was in fourth grade, but these emotions had me feeling an immense amount of pride in living in Colorado as well as in having played a small part in something so historical.
As president of Cobalt (a nonprofit abortion support organization based in Colorado), Karen Middleton noted that this bill was passed because it put minorities in the center. This bill shows that putting minorities first brings people out to fight for their rights because they feel seen and supported. Not only were gender-neutral terms used in the language of this bill, but it is also safe to say that it could not have made it this far without the vital assistance from COLOR, a Latina nonprofit reproductive rights organization. Pulling in all of these people from all walks of life was crucial to the passing of RHEA as well as providing a possible blueprint for other states hoping to protect abortion access. These efforts must and should be celebrated as well as reproduced.
Since Texas began restricting abortion access Colorado has seen a 520 percent increase in patients from Texas alone, and those numbers are only going to continue to rise as other states enact abortion bans. It is safe to say that the hope felt by me and thousands of Coloradans is also felt by thousands of abortion seekers across the country. It must be said though that a large hindrance to abortion access is travel, and those seeking abortions from other states will certainly have no small feat to overcome restrictions, both in avoiding their own states’ restrictions on seeking abortions out-of-state and travel.
While abortion access remains unacceptably low and wildly inaccessible, there is a small but mighty amount of hope evoked by the passing of RHEA. But because of Colorado’s long history of fighting for reproductive rights, some commentators see it as a special case, suggesting that RHEA’s success is unlikely to be duplicated. This dismissive idea justifies doing nothing and projects the events of history as inevitable while diminishing the hard work of abortion activists. Arguments like this are popular but deeply flawed and harmful.
We all have a duty to participate in our local legislative process and to protect those most vulnerable. Abortion bans will and have always impacted minorities the most. The poor, Black, Brown, queer, trans, Indigenous, and immigrant individuals will feel the blow of abortion access bans far more acutely. The passing of RHEA is a beacon of hope because it proves that the most vulnerable are valued, that hard work can pay off, and that good can endure. I believe that a side effect of hope is action. When we have hope, we realize that we can take control of our lives, that we have the ability to create change. It is my desire that with the hope brought about from the passing of RHEA, others will realize that change is not out of reach, no matter what your state’s history or politics.
In the words of Colorado Senator Julie Gonzales, a co-sponsor of RHEA, “When they come for our reproductive rights we FIGHT BACK”.