Denver abortion care organizations say they’ve spent years preparing for Roe v. Wade’s demise

Abortion funds and providers are laying the groundwork to handle an influx of out-of-state patients who could land in Denver and Colorado should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the decision.
6 min. read
Rev. Eric Banner of the Jefferson Unitarian Church holds a sign up during a rally at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, a day after a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, which in 1973 guaranteed legal access to abortion in the country, was leaked. “I’m here for my wife. I’m here for my three daughters. I’m here for the women in the church that I serve. I’m here because of the work that my mother has been putting in for 70 plus years to make sure that abortion is recognized as healthcare, because that’s what it is. Abortion is healthcare,” said Banner, choking up.
(Eli Imadali/For Denverite)

By Jessica Gibbs

When news broke that the U.S. Supreme Court could soon overturn the 50-year-old landmark case Roe v. Wade, panicked friends texted Adrienne Mansanares, CEO at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, asking what they could do.

It was a history-making moment, she said -- the kind where someone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they found out.

"While the writing was devastating this week, the impact of it has been long predicted, and we've been preparing for it," Mansanares said.

Abortion care providers and foundations in Colorado say they have spent six years watching the previous administration advance anti-abortion movements, the reshaping of the nation's highest court and anti-abortion sentiment spread.

Then this week a leaked draft of a majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito obtained by POLITICO sent shockwaves across the country as it revealed the high court had preliminarily voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The opinion is a draft which could change. So too can judges' votes before the court issues a final decision, something not expected for weeks. Federal protections for abortion provided by Roe v. Wade remains in place.

Still, the possible demise of Roe v. Wade could have particular ramifications for Denver and Colorado. 

Unlike its neighboring states, Colorado law protects the right to abortion. Abortion care clinics are available throughout the state, but a high concentration of them are located in the Denver metro area, a likely destination for out-of-state patients who travel to Denver becaue they do not have access to abortion care where they live.

One of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountain's key partnerships is with the Colorado-based abortion fund at Cobalt, Mansanares said, which provides financial assistance to people needing care at any income level.

Cobalt's leadership says they too have spent years laying the groundwork to respond if Roe v. Wade is struck down, such as bolstering the organization's multi-state network of abortion care providers and funds.

"I was surprised it was leaked, but I was not surprised by the opinion," Cobalt's President Karen Middleton said. "We have been anticipating this."

Last year, patients who reside outside of Colorado accounted for roughly 14% of abortions performed in the state, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of the 11,580 abortions reported in Colorado, there were 1,176 recorded in Denver. The state cautions its data likely undercounts the number of abortions provided in Colorado.

In the past 12 months, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains saw 2,132 abortion patients in Denver, a spokesperson for hte group said, compared to 1,195 in the 2021 fiscal year.

Middleton said Cobalt recently observed "a lot more requests" from patients traveling to Colorado from far away. About 20% of the people requesting financial support from Cobalt are not state residents, she said.

In 2021, Cobalt assisted about 1,200 people, and that number has been growing since Texas instated its abortion ban. Middleton is certain requests for Cobalt's assistance will grow if the U.S. Supreme Court's leaked opinion becomes final.

Middleton said Cobalt has been bracing its regional alliance of abortion care organizations across a dozen states -- organizations that provide either funding or healthcare.

They meet regularly to share strategies and discuss policy activity on the ground. At the most recent meeting, each organization reported local developments regarding abortion law in their state.

"We've also been building and growing our abortion fund," Middleton said.

The organization can work closely with clinics in Colorado to manage influxes in patients and help patients know which sites have capacity to serve them.

"Maybe it's rerouting them from one place to another," Middleton said.

Most clinics in Colorado know about Cobalt's resources and can provide a patient vouchers from the fund without having to call Cobalt, she said. It's less common, but people in need can also call Cobalt directly. Perhaps someone is homeless or traveling a long distance, and Cobalt can help facilitate their access to abortion care, she said.

Patients' needs are practical, Middleton said. Childcare for their children. Gas money. Airline tickets. A place to stay. It's not unheard of for a person to fly into Denver to receive abortion care and fly home that same day, Middleton said.

In the past few years, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains began investing in Telehealth, so people can have a clinical experience online or through an app. That also allows clinics more space to accommodate patients who could be traveling hundreds of miles, Mansanares said.

The organization further prepared "through expansion of our physical footprint," she said. That meant making sure existing centers had adequate waiting room space to offer people services efficiently.

Confidential, expert and compassionate care is paramount for patients who may be traveling "from very hateful states," Mansanares said. To help patients who may come to Denver or Colorado from an area where they do not have abortion care, Mansanares said she is always on the move.

Her job is to oversee a four-state region for Planned Parenthood -- Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming. She spends at least one day a week on Zoom or phone calls and traveling to build partnerships with affiliate Planned Parenthood locations or independent providers throughout the region, she said.

Some of her favorite abortion funds across the country "are teeny, tiny" organizers devoted to specific demographic groups and their unique needs, such as being sensitive to cultural or religious customs.

One is a fund called Indigenous Women Rising based out of New Mexico, but many funds focus on Spanish-speaking patients, African-American communities and more, she said.

Middleton said she expects the leaked opinion will galvanize women's reproductive rights advocates and awake "a sleeping giant of people" who did not think the U.S. Supreme Court would go so far as to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Healthcare decisions such as this "should not be in the hands of the government," she said, adding she believes the leaked opinion makes the court look political.

Although the threat of Roe v. Wade's downfall did not surprise her, what did shock Mansanares was the language of Alito's draft opinion. There is a section where he brings up prostitution, a stigmatizing word for people in the sex industry, Mansanares said.

"There's also words like 'abortionist,' which is just an angry, violent word, often," she said, describing anti-abortion protesters shouting the term at patients and healthcare employees working for Planned Parenthood.

"To use a word like that was so political I couldn't believe I was reading it in a Supreme Court ruling," she said.

CPR's John Daley contributed to this reporting.

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