DENVER (AP) — Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed a set of health care bills enshrining access to abortion and gender-affirming procedures and medications, as the Democrat-led state tries to make itself a safe haven for its neighbors, whose Republican leaders are restricting care.
The goal of the legislation is to ensure people in surrounding states and beyond can go to Colorado to have an abortion, begin puberty blockers or receive gender-affirming surgery without fear of prosecution. Bordering states of Wyoming and Oklahoma have passed abortion bans and Utah has severely restricted transgender care for minors.
Many states with abortion or transgender care bans are also criminalizing traveling to states for the purpose of accessing legal health care.
The contradicting laws are setting the stage for interstate disputes comparable to the patchwork of same-sex marriage laws that existed until 2015, or the 19th-century legal conflict over whether fugitive enslaved people in free states remained the property of slaveholders when they escaped.
The governor’s office was packed with lawmakers, advocates and health care providers, many of them women, for a ceremony with a celebratory feel that resembled a rally at times with loud applause and call-and-response chants.
“We see you and in Colorado, we’ve got your back,” Democratic state Sen. Julie Gonzalez during the ceremony.
With the new laws, Colorado joins Illinois as a progressive peninsula offering reproductive rights to residents of conservative states on three sides. Illinois abortion clinics now serve people living in a 1,800-mile (2,900-kilometer) stretch of 11 Southern states that have largely banned abortion.
Florida, temporarily a haven for abortion seekers in those states, outlawed abortions after 6 weeks. The bill, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday in a closed-door ceremony doesn’t go into effect right away.
California and New York are considering similar bills after the U.S. Supreme Court knocked down Roe. v. Wade, putting abortion laws in the hands of state legislatures.
Colorado’s southern neighbor, New Mexico, is also controlled by Democrats and signed a similar abortion protection bill earlier this year. It legally shields those who seek abortions or gender-affirming care, and those who provide the treatments, from interstate investigations.
Ashley Blinkhorn, a graduate student and activist who testified in favor of the bills during legislative hearings, said they will help people across the country, including possibly her recently married friends in their 30s and her queer friends in her former homes of Texas and Florida.
“It’s a real comfort to know that Colorado both will provide health care to them if they visit or if they move here,” she said.
Visits to Colorado’s abortion clinics have increased by about a third since the Supreme Court ruling and wait times for an appointment have increased from one or two days up to three weeks, according to state lawmakers. They also expect an increase in wait times for gender-affirming care.
Colorado House Minority Leader Mike Lynch said he feared the legislation would make Colorado an abortion destination that will attract “the vulnerable, the indigent and frightened minors from all over the country” and said the package does not protect choice.
“They deny a new mother the choice to consider alternative options other than to end her pregnancy,” Lynch, a Republican from Wellington, said in a statement.
Karen Middleton, president of Cobalt Advocates, a Denver-based organization that pushes for abortion access, said most of the women traveling to Colorado since the Supreme Court ruling have come from Texas and Wyoming. The organization spent $220,000 to help women get access to abortion in Colorado last year, most of them from other states, up from $6,000 in 2021, she said.
Polis added the first layer of abortion protection a year ago, signing an executive order that bars state agencies from cooperating with out-of-state investigations regarding reproductive healthcare. One of the bills he signed Friday codifies that order into law. Like the New Mexico law, it blocks court summons, subpoenas and search warrants from states that decide to prosecute someone for having an abortion.
Colorado’s abortion law extends the protections to transgender patients dodging restrictions in their own states. Gender-affirming health care has been available for decades, but some states have recently barred minors from accessing it, even with parental consent. Hospitals in some of those states say gender-affirming surgeries are rarely recommended for minors anyway. Puberty blockers are more common.
Conservative states are pushing back. Idaho passed a bill that outlaws providing a minor with abortion pills and helping them leave the state to terminate a pregnancy without their parents’ consent.
The Colorado law comes as medication abortions are in limbo across the U.S. and mail-order prescriptions of a crucial abortion drug are virtually banned pending the outcome of a federal court case.
Also on Friday, Polis signed a measure that outlaws “deceptive practices” by anti-abortion centers, which are known to market themselves as abortion clinics but don’t actually offer the procedure. Instead, they attempt to convince patients to not terminate their pregnancies. The bill also prohibits sites from offering what’s called an abortion pill reversal — and unproven practice to reverse a medical abortion.
A third bill signed Friday requires large employers to offer coverage for the total cost of an abortion, with an exception for those who object on religious grounds. It exempts public employees because Colorado’s constitution forbids the use of public funds for abortions. ____
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Thomas Peipert in Denver also contributed to this report.