CO Ballot: Abortion rights groups in Colorado, reports the Colorado Sun, turned in paperwork last week to place a proposed constitutional amendment before voters that would both safeguard abortion access and overturn a 1984 amendment that bans public funding for the procedure. The campaign initially considered pursuing these changes through two separate initiatives before settling on one, and if the measure qualifies for the ballot, supporters would need to convince at least 55% of voters to back the "yes" side in November of 2024 in order to pass it.
The proposed amendment represents the latest battle over reproductive rights in the Centennial State, which made history twice in the 20th century by passing two very different first-in-the-nation laws regarding abortion. In 1967, six years before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Roe v. Wade, the Colorado legislature advanced a bill to allow a panel of physicians to approve the procedure during the first 16 weeks of pregnancy in cases of rape or incest; if the mother's mental or physical well-being was at risk; or if there was a risk of birth defects.
The bill, which was signed into law by Republican Gov. John Love, would be unacceptable to pro-choice groups today, but it was groundbreaking for its era. (California Gov. Ronald Reagan would approve a scaled-back version later that year, a decision he'd call a "mistake" less than a decade later.) Love assured detractors that "[t]he fear that some have that Colorado will become an ‘abortion Mecca’ if this bill becomes law does not seem to me well founded," but there was no organized anti-abortion movement to defeat it at the time.
Things would be very different in 1984 when voters approved Amendment 3 by 50.4-49.6 (state constitutional amendments only needed a simple majority to pass at the time). While the federal Hyde Amendment was already a few years old, this tight win at the ballot box made Colorado the first state to bar public funds from being used for abortions. Anti-abortion groups celebrated even though a similar proposal failed in Washington state 53-47 that same day, and they correctly predicted they'd be able to achieve more such victories nationwide.
Reproductive rights supporters in turn argued that voters had been confused by the wording of the question and that some had mistakenly believed a "yes" vote was for "Yes for choice." The head of the regional Planned Parenthood affiliate also told The Daily Sentinel that some voters saw Amendment 3, which was on the ballot as Reagan was overwhelmingly carrying the state, as "a spending measure … People are on a real wave of, 'Hell, we're not going to pay for anything.'" However, a 1988 proposal to repeal Amendment 3 went down by a lopsided 60-40.
Colorado's electorate has shifted hard to the left since then, especially in recent years, and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and his allies in the legislature have successfully pursued some of the nation's most pro-choice laws. Amendment 3, though, continues to be a huge obstacle for Medicaid recipients and state and local government employees. "Poor women in Colorado are, legally, basically living in Texas," law school professor Jennifer Hendricks told Colorado Politics this year. "There’s been a lot of talk about Colorado as a haven and how we’re protecting this right and it’s important for women in the region, but the barriers that poor women face have not gotten as much attention."
The Colorado Reproductive Health Rights and Justice Coalition, which is an alliance of several progressive groups, agrees, and it's working to place a proposed amendment on next year's ballot to finally end this restriction. However, getting the proposal before voters will be an expensive job thanks to the passage of a 2016 amendment that, in addition to requiring 55% of the vote to pass constitutional amendments, also turned signature-gathering into a far more onerous task.
The coalition will need to turn in about 124,000 valid petitions, a figure that represents 5% of the total vote cast in the most recent election for secretary of state, and it must also hit certain targets in each of the 35 state Senate districts. Once the secretary of state approves summary language, the coalition will have six months to gather petitions: Despite the cost, though, one leader, Karen Middleton of Cobalt Advocates, predicted to Westword that they'd have no trouble hitting their goal. (Cobalt, notably, was formed in the aftermath of Amendment 3's passage.)
Anti-abortion groups are also pursuing their own amendment to push a total ban even though voters in 2020 rejected a 22-week ban by 59-41. But while it's unlikely such a proposal could pass in 2024, the Sun notes that the state could be in for an expensive battle as conservatives try to keep the pro-choice side from securing the 55% it needs. Middleton, for her part, previewed the argument her coalition would use last month to Westword, saying, "Everyone should have insurance that covers the full spectrum of reproductive health care, including abortion, regardless of who we work for."