Ballot initiative seeks to enshrine abortion rights in Colorado constitution

Advocates for abortion access gather to submit more than 232,000 signatures to place an amendment to Colorado's constitution on the ballot on Thursday in Denver, Colo. Photo courtesy of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom/Evan Semon Photography
1 of 2 | Advocates for abortion access gather to submit more than 232,000 signatures to place an amendment to Colorado's constitution on the ballot on Thursday in Denver, Colo. Photo courtesy of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom/Evan Semon Photography

April 18 (UPI) -- A petition to guarantee the right to an abortion in Colorado's constitution has received enough signatures to put the issue on the ballot in November.

Proposition 89 surpassed the more than 124,000 signatures required to appear on the ballot. Laura Chapin, media communications director for Cobalt which advocates for abortion access in Colorado, told UPI about 232,000 signatures were submitted on Thursday.


It also met a requirement to gather signatures from at least 2% of registered voters in each of 35 state senate districts.

Abortion is currently legal without restrictions in Colorado. However, an amendment adopted in 1984 allows for health insurance coverage to be denied for abortion services. That amendment also bans public funds from being used for abortions, meaning government employees may not be covered by insurance.

Proposition 89 would also bar state and local governments from denying insurance coverage to government employees.


Enshrining abortion access

The Colorado Secretary of State must validate the signatures submitted before putting the amendment question on the ballot.

It requires 55% approval from voters to pass.

The petition comes in the wake of the Arizona Supreme Court's decision to uphold a near-total abortion ban last week.

"The news of Arizona's near-total abortion ban ultimately exposed just how vulnerable every state is, and will remain, without passing legislation that constitutionally secures the right to abortion," said Jess Grennan, campaign director of the Colorado Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice Coalition, in a statement to UPI. "Ballot measures like Proposition 89 are our first line of defense against government overreach and our best tool to protect the freedom to make personal, private healthcare decisions."

Leslie Root, assistant professor of research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told UPI that if abortion access is enshrined in the constitution there will still be gaps in access. That is because Medicaid does not cover immigrants who do not have documentation to reside in the United States.

Colorado also has a parental notification law. This requires minors to notify at least one parent if they intend to have an abortion. Root said that this puts some minors at risk of abuse or being kicked out of their homes.


Colorado's legacy of abortion laws

Colorado became the first state to legalize some abortions in 1967, about six years before the Supreme Court delivered its decision on Roe vs. Wade. Sen. John Bermingham and Rep. Dick Lamm co-authored the bill, House Bill 1426, to legalize abortion when pregnancy poses a mental or physical risk to the child, as well as exceptions for rape and incest.

In 1984, voters approved a constitutional amendment that barred the state government from using funding for abortion services. It was approved by less than 1% of the vote. This made it illegal for public insurance to cover abortions in Colorado.

The state legislature passed the Reproductive Health Equity Act in 2022 to prohibit public entities from becoming involved in a person's decision to use contraception or terminate a pregnancy.

Karen Middleton, president of Cobalt and co-chair of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom, told UPI a constitutional amendment has become more important as other states have implemented abortion bans.

News of Arizona reviving an 1864 abortion law was not a big driver of signatures and engagement, according to Middleton, because many in Colorado were still responding to new laws in Florida and Alabama.

Florida is set to enact a six-week ban on abortion on May 1. Earlier this year, Alabama's supreme court ruled that frozen embryos be legally recognized as children.


"They barely got over Florida before Arizona hit," Middleton said. "Voters are extremely frustrated. That's why ballot measures are so impactful. These two states are the latest in a drum beat of one radical idea after another."

Middleton has been involved in women's healthcare advocacy for more than a decade. She said Colorado voters have repeatedly struck down efforts to restrict abortions since 2008.

The previous effort to restrict abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy in 2020 received more than 1.8 million "no" votes, defeating it with 59% against.

"Because we have historically been a state without restrictions on access to abortion, we've been a place of last resort for many people who could not get an abortion in their state," Middleton said. "By expanding that right, we become an important piece of the national fabric. We're able to respond to crises created by the bans. We recognize this has created a healthcare crisis for people across the country.

Opposing ballot measure fails

Another ballot initiative to ban all abortions in Colorado failed to meet Thursday's deadline for signatures. Initiative 81 was an effort to put a complete ban on the ballot. It would have also punished medical professionals who perform or facilitate an abortion. Punishment includes the permanent revocation of licensing and permits and the closure of facilities found to be engaged in the "intentional physical harm of a child leading to a child's disability" or death.


Faye Barnhart, co-proponent for the Colorado Life Initiative, told UPI that there were no exceptions under the proposed law for rape, incest or protecting the life of the mother.

"In our research, there is not a need for exceptions because nobody is going to stop saving the lives of mothers," she said. "It's not necessary to intentionally mutilate, poison, stab or starve a baby to protect the life of a mother."

The Colorado Life Initiative announced Thursday that it fell short of the 124,238 signatures required. The issue committee said in a statement that it intends to put forward more "pro-life" measures in the future.

Root said the Dobbs decision has sparked support for increasing access to abortion and opposition to measures that would restrict access.

"Since Dobbs, public opinion has actually shifted more in favor of abortion," Root said. "[Colorado] maybe used to be more split on political lines. Colorado is a very mixed place. There's always been this cowboy, libertarian, small government mentality. There is a strong presence of the religious right in the state. Once people actually see the result of loss of access to abortion people start to think that, yes, it is healthcare."

Ballot measures across the country


Like Colorado, five more states have petitions to put abortion on the ballot circulating.

Missouri is the next with signatures due on May 5. Missourians for Constitutional Freedom is pursuing a constitutional amendment that would make abortion legal until a fetus is viable.

Viability is defined in the proposed amendment as "the point in pregnancy when, in the good faith judgment of a treating health care professional -- there is a significant likelihood of the fetus's sustained survival outside the uterus without the application of extraordinary medical measures."

The group must collect about 171,000 signatures.

Abortion is currently banned in Missouri with some exceptions.

A petition is circulating in South Dakota for a constitutional amendment to legalize abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. Abortion is currently illegal.

After the first trimester, the state may restrict abortion "only in ways that are reasonably related to the physical health of the pregnant woman. Abortion would be illegal after the second trimester except when it is deemed medically necessary.

Dakotans for Health is leading the signature campaign. The petition needs about 35,000 valid signatures by May 7 to appear on the ballot.

Nevadans for Reproductive Freedom is gathering signatures to a constitutional amendment to allow access to an abortion through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. The amendment would also include exceptions for the health and life of the mother.


The amendment is already law in the state, but adding it to the constitution would protect it from being overturned by an unfavorable legislature and governor. The petition needs about 102,000 valid signatures submitted by June 26 to reach the ballot.

Arizonans need 383,923 valid signatures to amend their constitution to enshrine abortion access protections. Arizona for Abortion Access, the coalition behind the ballot campaign, has until July 4 to submit signatures.

Arkansas has a petition circulating to prohibit the government from restricting abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. Arkansans for Limited Government leads that signature drive. It needs 90,704 signatures to put the question on the ballot. The ballot question requires a simple majority to pass.

Abortion is banned in Arkansas.

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