Demand for Colorado abortion care spikes as out-of-state patients face desperate circumstances
On a recent Saturday morning in Boulder, thousands of people marched through the streets to protest the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. Their voices were angry and hoarse as they chanted “abortion rights are human rights!” and “my body, my choice!” Motorists honked and raised their fists as the protesters clogged the sidewalks.
Moments before, abortion provider Dr. Kelly Peters told the crowd that Boulder Valley Women’s Health Center has been inundated with calls since Roe was overturned.
“It was heartbreaking to hear women on the phone and hear their partners on another phone in the background, frantically trying to get appointments,” said Peters, the clinic’s medical director and a former patient.
Her work has become a personal and professional calling.
Years ago when Peters was faced with an unwanted pregnancy, she visited the clinic to have an abortion. The care she received was compassionate and impactful. So she began volunteering there and later became a medical assistant. Eventually Peters attended medical school, specializing in obstetrics and gynecology.
Since the reversal of Roe, Peters said she has had many sleepless nights and distressing moments. But given the increasing need she and her staff are working to meet, there is no time for despair.
Last year less than 3% of the patients Peters treated had out-of-state addresses. That number is up to 25% now and Peters is rushing to hire more staff, adding another day per week for abortion care and double-booking appointments.
Ever since Texas enacted a law last September outlawing abortion after six weeks, Peters said some out-of-state patients have been pushing the limits to make it to Boulder, “driving 14, 15 hours, through snowstorms, trying to get hotels,” all while the cost of gas has skyrocketed and prices for air travel have continued to climb.
“Everything's gone up. And some people can't do that. Some people can't take time off from work and they don't have the financial resources to do this. So it's been a whole lot to take in, but we're doing the best we can,” she said.
An abortion haven
Boulder has a pro-choice history. Back in 1986, the progressive-leaning city enacted a “buffer-zone” policy prohibiting anti-abortionists from approaching patients entering abortion clinics. Now with Roe overturned, protective measures are increasingly emerging at the state level.
A new Colorado law, the Reproductive Health Equity Act, guarantees the right to an abortion. Co-sponsor Rep. Meg Froelich-D, Arapahoe, remembered “heartbreaking” testimonies when she brought RHEA to the House floor. One came from a Texas abortion provider who could not treat a woman that had suffered a miscarriage. The woman traveled to Colorado for her procedure instead, an example of “the criminalization of miscarriages,” Froelich said.
Yet a rise in out-of-state patients could have cascading effects for Coloradans.
“We already have rural folks and low-income folks, Indigenous people, communities of color that were challenged with access to proper reproductive care to the full range,” Froelich said. “And now we have an additional influx of thousands and thousands of people who are just seeking their basic fundamental rights.”
With the Colorado Legislature on break for the rest of the year, Gov. Jared Polis recently issued an executive order protecting out-of-state patients and their providers. Froelich said when the legislature meets in January, she will be ready with additional legislation aimed at strengthening reproductive rights.
Increasingly, more eyes are on the Centennial State as the battle for reproductive rights heightens.
“Colorado is going to be so important in the near future, immediate future, right now,” said David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel University who studies abortion issues.
He points out two things that make Colorado key in the battle for abortion access: its central geographic location and its many neighbors curbing abortion access. But there is a huge equity component to this.
“Travel involves privilege and privilege tracks with race and class in this country,” Cohen said. “And so the people who are going to be impacted the most by a world in which much of abortion care is based on your ability to travel are going to be poor people and people of color.”
‘Just to have somebody listen to me’
Hailey Plush, 21, falls into the former category — money is tight. She is part of a growing group of people coming to Colorado for care, sometimes under difficult circumstances.
“The whole gist of it was just hard,” she said. “I mean, we’re broker than broke right now. It took all of our money to get up there.”
The Wyoming resident is still processing the trauma she endured before she was able to get an abortion. Plush has a rare condition called hyperemesis, which causes severe nausea, vomiting and weight loss during pregnancy.
“I got to the point where I was bedridden. I was throwing up blood. So I drove myself to the hospital here,” she said.
Plush says she went to two different Wyoming emergency rooms, emaciated and begging to end her pregnancy. “The only thing somebody could tell me was, well, we're going to do what we can to help you continue with this pregnancy.”
Wyoming has long been a so-called abortion desert. It has just one provider in the northwest corner of the state that offers medication abortions up to 10 weeks. In Casper, an arsonist recently set fire to a new surgical abortion clinic which has delayed the facility's opening.
The state, meanwhile, was poised to outlaw abortion entirely after Roe's reversal but a judge has temporarily blocked that from happening. So abortion, for now, remains legal yet largely inaccessible.
Sick and desperate, Plush called Planned Parenthood and they found her an appointment more than four hours away at their Fort Collins clinic. When she got a call back that they could see her the next morning at 9 a.m., she called her grandmother sobbing. “I was so grateful and I was so thankful just to have somebody listen to me that I sat there and I cried.”
Plush got money from the Wyoming nonprofit Chelsea’s Fund to pay for the procedure. The volunteer-led abortion fund has seen a major influx of donations since Roe was overturned, but that money did not cover gas, hotels and a car that broke down along the way. Plush and her husband are now holding yard sales to make ends meet and visiting food banks.
A couple hundred miles away in Cheyenne, Wyo., a similar story has been playing out for Jordan Garland, 24. She lives in a camper with her boyfriend and is also relying on money from Chelsea’s Fund to pay for her upcoming abortion in Colorado.
“I'm actually very scared,” she said. “Just because, well, for one, I've never had surgery. I've never gone through anything. Like, I've never had anything very medical, emergency-wise happen. So it's kind of a big step out of my comfort zone.”
Garland was shocked when she learned she was pregnant. She drove 100 miles to a Planned Parenthood in Denver to then discover she was too far along to be treated there. The clinician referred her to Dr. Warren Hern in Boulder. The longtime abortion provider specializes in complex cases, but getting an appointment with him is becoming harder.
“We're booked out two or three weeks and that's never happened before,” Hern said.
Garland, for her part, waited weeks to get something on the books. The waiting has intensified her fear and anxiety about a procedure she did not expect to have.
Hern said the problem for Garland and others is that a lack of abortion care nationwide means patients will increasingly have to put off the procedure even longer — and the need to see specialists like him will deepen.
“People need immediate attention and they shouldn't have to wait,” he said. “And it's very bad for them to have to wait. It increases the risk, it increases the cost, emotional anguish and all the rest.”
The 84-year-old physician is trying to meet the increasing need by training other doctors to work with him and has tentative plans to build a bigger facility in Boulder. Still, even in a pro-choice community, Hern operates with eyes in the back of his head.
“I may not assume that I’m safe at any time,” he said.
Hern did not show up to that recent pro-abortion rally in Boulder due to death threats. But this is nothing new for him. He has been stalked at his office and he has been shot at elsewhere. He said that is simply the reality for abortion providers across America.