Reproductive rights, religious liberties clash at state Capitol

The Colorado Statesman

The polarizing and explosive national debate over contraceptive health care has erupted in Colorado with controversial rallies, legislation and ballot proposals that seemingly draw a clear line in the sand between government and religious liberties.

The debate has been triggered, in part, by a mandate in President Barack Obama’s federal health care law that requires employers to cover contraception without co-pays. The president recently proposed a compromise that would require insurers to provide the contraceptive coverage without charging employers, but still leaves unanswered questions surrounding self-insured religiously affiliated institutions.

Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, expresses her frustration over attacks on women’s health care at a rally outside the Capitol on Monday.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., attempted to address Obama’s mandate by proposing an amendment to an unrelated federal transportation bill that would have allowed insurers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage over religious or moral objections. But Senate Democrats blocked the proposal earlier this month.
Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, disagrees with the Democrats’ premise and insists that the issue is really about constitutional religious rights. He brought the issue to the forefront recently by proposing a Senate memorial that would declare the Colorado Legislature’s support for Blunt’s amendment. The memorial was scheduled for a hearing Monday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, but was postponed.

Monica McCafferty of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains displays a sign at the rally at the Capitol on Monday. Her organization as well as Protect Families Protect Choice organized the event.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

“The Respect for Rights of Conscience Act simply preserves the fundamental religious rights institutions had before the federal Department of Health and Human Services changed it,” he said. “I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting religious freedoms.”

Dr. Andrew Ross voices his opposition to HB 1130, and his support for women’s right to fair and intelligent medical treatment.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

But Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, views the Blunt amendment and Neville’s memorial as an assault on women’s health care rights. She expressed her frustration at a rally held Monday at the Capitol protesting what critics believe to be an outdated attack on women’s health coverage.

Women from throughout the state gather outside the Colorado State Capitol to voice opposition to HB 1130, which they fear could restrict access to women’s health care and birth control.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

“If this thing passes it would put Colorado on the record as saying, ‘If you’re an employer or a health care insurance provider and you don’t like something about someone’s health care choices, you can deny them access,’” Cowart told supporters at Monday’s event.

Protect Families Protect Choice and Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains organized the rally, which also included remarks from Reps. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.

GOP also rallies: ‘Hitler,’ ‘Genocide’ and ‘Spring Break’

Meagan Como, a student at CSU, joins rallying health care supporters at the state Capitol on Monday. Birth control drugs are sometimes prescribed for conditions other than preventing pregnancy, she tells the crowd.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

Republicans, meanwhile, held a rally of their own on Monday, taking a stand for religious constitutional freedoms. But many of the conservative speakers raised eyebrows when comparisons were made to “genocide,” “Hitler” and “socialism.”

“The history of mankind from the beginning of time is a history of governments that have tried to oppress their citizens based on religious grounds,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. “And we have seen time and time again, when government has done that, when the people have allowed their government to do that, if we allow it one inch, it leads to genocide somewhere down the road.”

State Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, shows her support for women’s right to choose, privacy and medical treatment. Duran is one of several legislators who has expressed dislike for ballot initiatives that could limit women’s abilities to make important decisions about their medical treatments.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

“Whether you’re looking at Nebuchadnezzar in the Old Testament, or whether you’re looking at Hitler in the last century, or whether you’re looking at the radical Taliban that’s going on in the Middle East right now… that is a cliff that we cannot go over,” Harvey continued.

State Rep. Andy Kerr shows his support for women’s right to make decisions concerning their health care treatment.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

Neville also spoke at the rally, continuing with the controversial comparisons. “In 1941, America again faced the threat of Adolph Hitler and national socialism while attempting to step on its citizens’ right of consciousness and pushing a populist anti-big business, anti-capitalist theme along with its attacks on established religious institutions.”

Jeremy Shaver, executive director of the Interfaith Alliance, stands with women across the state in opposition to initiatives that could limit medical treatment for women. He said that many faith leaders would not stand up and be heard on the matter of women’s rights, but he would not be one of them.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

Republican Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray also flexed his conservative opinions regarding contraceptive health care when he waded deep into the debate last week in “140 characters or less.” Brophy posted a message on Twitter echoing controversial remarks made by conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh who called Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying before Congress in support of contraceptive health care.

Vicki Cowart, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, views the Blunt amendment and Sen. Tim Neville’s memorial as an assault on women’s health care rights.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

While Limbaugh has apologized for the remarks, Brophy unapologetically made similar comments on Twitter. “Ms. Fluke, I don’t want to buy your booze, pay for your spring break or your birth control. Call your Dad for that,” he tweeted.

Brophy’s comments were met by an onslaught of criticism from progressive groups and women who fought back on Twitter, with one poster asking Brophy, “So, does that mean [you’ve] never had sex for fun?”

Lorena Garcia, executive director of Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunities and Reproductive Rights (COLOR), urges people not to support initiatives that could hinder women from making decisions about birth control and medical treatment.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

Colorado State University student Meagan Como mentioned Brophy’s tweet at the rally. “While Sen. Brophy would have you believe that taking birth control is something that I do recreationally, I would like to point out that 58 percent of women take birth control for something other than preventing pregnancies,” she pointed out. Como told the crowd that she was prescribed birth control to increase blood clotting that is a problem for her as a result of hemophilia.

Gina Millan, community organizer for Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunities and Reproductive Rights, displays her organization’s banner on the steps of the Colorado Capitol building on Monday.
Photo by Charles Hale/The Colorado Statesman

Brophy told The Colorado Statesman that before he sent his Twitter update, he knew the comment would likely spark animosity and criticism, but he said he felt it was necessary to send a strong message since he only had 140 characters to do so, as is the limit with the Twitter technology

“When you’re limited by 140 characters, either you make a point, or you don’t make a point… The discussion is over whether it’s appropriate to hand out birth control to 18-year-old coeds on campus… I don’t think it sells the college experience to mom and dad looking to send their kid to that school,” said Brophy.

“It’s really about standing up for religious liberty and economic freedom,” he continued. “They are attacking both of those.”

Personhood emerges again

“Personhood” has also popped up again as a wedge issue in the reproductive health care debate, in which supporters would like to extend constitutional rights to a “person” from the moment of biological development.

The Colorado Supreme Court last week gave the go-ahead to Personhood proponents to begin collecting signatures to place an initiative on the November ballot for the third time in five years. If supporters of the measure can gather almost 86,000 valid petition signatures, Colorado voters could be asked again to extend constitutional rights to all humans at any stage of development, essentially banning abortions and again raising fears over unintended consequences like turning doctors into criminals for performing routine and emergency medical procedures, or for prescribing birth control pills.

Planned Parenthood had argued that the ballot title of the proposed initiative is misleading for not expressing the “true intent and meaning of the measure…” But the Supreme Court unanimously disagreed earlier this month, much to the delight of the amendment backers.

“Our perseverance in Colorado is indicative of the lifelong battle we are ready to wage against abortion,” said Gualberto Garcia Jones, legal analyst for Personhood Colorado. “We will not rest until every born and preborn child is protected by love and by law.”

But critics point out that Colorado voters already rejected Personhood amendments in 2008 and 2010 by wide margins, which indicates to them that there is no appetite in the state for such pro-life efforts. They liken the issue to a piece of legislation moving through the Legislature that critics fear could extend similar Personhood rights to the unborn.

House Bill 1130, sponsored by Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, would allow prosecutors to charge suspects with the same violent crimes against both a pregnant mother and her unborn child. Similar so-called “fetal homicide” legislation has failed at the Legislature in previous years, but supporters are hopeful that a simpler bill this year will rally support. The legislation is awaiting full debate by the House.

Critics say the legislation could have unintended consequences, including criminalizing medical abortions and miscarriages.

“This is essentially a backdoor establishment of Personhood,” Cowart said of Joshi’s legislation during Monday’s rally. “You remember Personhood? How many times have we already defeated Personhood? Twice… we do not believe in this dangerous and deceptive law.”

Joshi says there is no connection between his bill and efforts by Personhood proponents to ban abortion in Colorado. He said his legislation is simply about public safety.

“This bill is more about being a part of the law enforcement community… that’s why at the Judiciary Committee hearing district attorneys testified, because several DAs are in favor of this bill because they need this bill to prosecute the perpetrators,” Joshi explained. “This is more for the protection of our women than anything else…”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com