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Abortion Laws Across The Mountain West Reflect Growing Polarization

Adam Fagen

An upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case could result in some states in the Mountain West moving to severely limit or even ban abortions.

The high court will examine a disputed Mississippi law that would ban abortions after 15 weeks, challenging a precedent that goes back to Roe v. Wade. That 1973 Supreme Court case protects a woman’s right to an abortion.

Joshua Wilson studies abortion politics at the University of Denver and says the Mountain West reflects the past, present and future of abortion politics. In other words, states in the region have a broad spectrum of laws on the books.

“We can think of Colorado and somewhat New Mexico as representing the progressive states in terms of abortion politics,” Wilson said.

In 1967 Colorado became the first state to ease abortion law, though today it does not have a law on the books reaffirming the right to an abortion. New Mexico passed such a law in February when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham repealed an old abortion ban, ensuring abortion access if federal policy changes.

Nevada, with a majority-women legislature, also has moved to strengthen reproductive rights. In 2019, it passed the Trust Nevada Women Act, which removed criminal penalties that a woman could face relating to abortions and expanded language services for women considering abortions.

Meanwhile, the rest of the states in the region – Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming – are among those moving to regulate abortion more.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte signed into law three anti-abortion measures in April including one similar to the disputed Mississippi law. It bans abortions at 20 weeks.

States with so-called trigger laws in the Mountain West include Utah and Idaho, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group focused on reproductive rights. That means those states already have laws on the books that would ban abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Wilson says states that have passed recent anti-abortion measures also provide clues to how they might react to a Supreme Court ruling.

Wilson traces much of the recent anti-abortion legislation that has moved through statehouses to the election of former President Donald Trump. Anti-abortion activists discerned new opportunity at that time, he said.

“They foresaw that Trump stood to reform the federal judiciary and particularly the U.S. Supreme Court," Wilson said. "So some states started to become really active in writing more restrictive laws that could maybe result in a court case like what we see coming out of the state of Mississippi.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.
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