How the GOP is trying to outlaw abortion — even after the clinic shootings

Colorado Republicans have long waged battles against government funded contraception and abortion. This legislative session promises to be no different.

Months after a shooting that left three dead at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic, Colorado’s conservative Republican lawmakers once again are trying to outlaw abortion.

Anti-abortion members of the House and Senate aim to introduce a new round of bills that likely will woo their evangelical base but have little chance of reaching the Governor’s desk.

“We expect there will be numerous bills we need to fight this session, and they will take many forms – attempts to restrict clinic operations, funding battles and others. All of these efforts are aimed directly at restricting abortion rights for Colorado women, and we won’t let that happen,” said Sarah Taylor-Nanista of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Three anti-abortion measures already have been introduced in the House.

The first, offered by Rep. Janak Joshi, a Republican from Colorado Springs, revisits one of the 2015 session’s most disputed issues: the death of an unborn fetus due to a criminal act. Under House Bill 16-1007, a prosecuting attorney would have the option of filing homicide or other assault charges against a person who causes the death of an “unborn member of the species homo sapiens.”

Last March, a Longmont woman stabbed a pregnant woman in an attempt to steal her unborn baby, who died in the attack. Senate President Bill Cadman, another Colorado Springs Republican, sponsored a bill that would have made such attacks eligible for homicide charges when death occurs “at every stage of gestation from conception to birth.” But Democrats opposed the bill, calling it a backdoor way to enact personhood — cementing into state law the concept life begins at conception.

Joshi’s bill does not define the term “unborn,” leaving open the possibility that the bill could apply to a criminal act at any gestational age, from conception on. Joshi’s bill has been assigned to the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee, an unusual choice, but one defended this week by Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a Democrat from Gunbarrel, near Boulder. Usually such bills are sent to the House “kill committee,” the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Still, Democrats and pro-choice advocates say the bill is unnecessary because Colorado law already criminalizes “unlawful termination” — ending a pregnancy without the pregnant person’s consent.

In 2003, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed a law that made the unlawful termination of a pregnancy a class 4 felony, which carries a minimum sentence of two years and a maximum of six years in prison. In 2013 Democrats passed the Crimes Against Pregnant Women Act, which strengthened the penalty for the unlawful termination of a pregnancy to a class 3 felony, and a class 2 felony, if the woman dies. The class 3 felony carries a prison term of 8 to 24 years and up to a $1 million fine.

Another measure being proposed this session targets doctors who perform abortions. HB 1113 is sponsored by Republican Rep. Stephen Humphrey of Severance. It would make an abortion a class 1 felony, the harshest penalty under state law, which carries a sentence of life in prison or even capital punishment. The bill includes an exception for abortions necessary to save the life of the pregnant person and does not penalize women who seek abortions for any reason. It has been assigned to the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee, also something of an unusual choice, since Democrats normally assign anti-abortion bills to State Affairs. However, Hullinghorst told reporters that every committee chair this session has been angling to tackle bills on the abortion issue. The Health and Insurance Committee is chaired by Rep. Beth McCann, a Denver Democrat who in the fall is running for Denver District Attorney.

Doctors oppose such laws because, they argue, they prevent them from giving their patients the best individual health care possible.

The third bill is sponsored by Republican Reps. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs and Lang Sias of Arvada, and deals with infants born alive after an abortion. HB 1146 is modeled after legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002. Landgraf carried a similar bill last year.

This year’s bill says any infant born through “complete expulsion or extraction” from the mother, and who has a heartbeat and is breathing, is to be considered a human being.

A recent report from NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado says this type of bill “increases threats to and risks for doctors who provide abortions after the second trimester.” Usually such abortions are performed either to save the life of the mother or because of fetal abnormalities or genetic disorders.

Dan McConchie, a spokesman for Americans United for Life, told The Colorado Independent that 30 states — including conservative-leaning states like Texas and Oklahoma — have passed “born alive” bills, as have liberal-leaning ones like California, New York and Massachusetts. To date, 26 states have passed laws similar to the one offered by Landgraf and Sias.

Such laws “should be pretty common for people to embrace,” McConchie said. The big issue in Colorado, he added, is that people believe the laws would usher in personhood. But once those born-alive bills passed, that didn’t happen, he said.

In response, Planned Parenthood’s Taylor-Nanista said Colorado doesn’t have a history of “born-alive” cases and that such bills are designed to scare doctors out of performing abortions.

HB 1146 has been assigned to the House State Affairs Committee. As of today, it doesn’t have a Senate sponsor, and given its committee assignment, probably won’t need one.

Hullinghorst told reporters this week she has tired of the “extreme right of the House continuing to send these very extreme bills on women’s right to choose.

“I would simply say a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions with her doctor is none of their damn business.”

Of the 80-plus bills introduced in the Senate, so far, none have dealt with abortion.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming, as well as others in the House. The NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado report said anti-abortion groups are targeting the pro-choice majority in 2016, based on five bills offered by Republicans in 2015 (although all failed), and four previous failed attempts to put personhood into the state constitution.

As for asking voters once again to put personhood into law, Personhood USA so far has not yet filed a request for an initiative for the 2016 election. Colorado voters three times have overwhelmingly rejected similar ballot measures. Personhood USA did not return a call for comment.

Planned Parenthood expects that other bills — especially those tied to Center for Medical Progress videos — will be proposed this session.

The Center for Medical Progress last year released a series of heavily-edited videos that alleged Planned Parenthood, including in Colorado, was harvesting and then selling fetal tissue. At least a half-dozen states have investigated the videos’ claims and to date not one, even in conservative states like Indiana, have found the claims credible.

Video creator David Daleiden and an associate were indicted in Texas this week for fraud in connection to the videos.

His indictment — and increasing evidence that the videos are baseless — apparently hasn’t stopped some lawmakers from using the videos to push bills to defund abortion providers or ban fetal tissue programs, although Taylor-Nanista said Colorado doesn’t have any, nor does it have a fetal tissue donation program, which also could be targeted by legislation this year.  The point of all of these anti-abortion bills, as Taylor-Nanista sees it, is to “chip away at abortion rights” rather than directly challenging Roe v. Wade, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case in 1973 that legalized abortion.

One of the fights pro-choice and health advocates might not have to deal with this year is securing funding for the state’s heralded Long-Acting Reversible Contraception program, which provides contraceptive implants, like intrauterine devices to low-income women.

Last year, Republicans opposed funding the LARC program, which until then, had relied on private funds. The program has been hailed as a national model for reducing teen pregnancy.

The proposal has had bipartisan support in the past, including a stand-alone bill last year that sought to grant $5 million to the program. Lawmakers also tried but failed to fund it last year through an amendment to the state budget bill. A private group stepped up to keep the program, which is run by the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, in place for another year.

This session, there may be enough votes on the Joint Budget Committee to put LARC funding into the budget bill. Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, said he supported the program last year, and would be the crucial fourth vote that would break the stalemate. Rankin told The Independent he was still thinking about it and hadn’t made a decision.

Other bills anticipated this session, would seek to to improve access to contraceptives, which the GOP has historically blocked. 

Photo credit: The All-Nite Images, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.