Colorado Catholic health clinic joins forces with D.C. law firm to challenge state’s new abortion-access law

Aborton Trans Laws Colorado
David Zalubowski/AP
Colorado Governor Jared Polis, center, signs three bills that enshrine protections for abortion and gender-affirming care procedures and medications during a ceremony with bill sponsors and supporters Friday, April 14, 2023, in the State Capitol in Denver.

Bella Health and Wellness, an Englewood-based Catholic health care clinic, is challenging one of the state’s new abortion-access laws that were signed by Governor Jared Polis this week.

In a lawsuit, Bella Health argues that the new law targets religious clinics’ duty to help pregnant women in need — which they say is a violation of their constitutional rights. They say those duties include helping women continue their pregnancies after they take mifepristone, a pharmaceutical drug used in medication abortion, and later change their mind.

“We opened [the lawsuit] because of our belief that life is a precious gift from God, worthy of protection at all stages,” said Dede Chism, a nurse practitioner and co-founder and CEO at Bella Health and Wellness, in a release. “When a woman seeks our help to reverse the effects of the abortion pill, we have a religious obligation to offer every available option for her and her child.”

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit, Bella Health and Wellness v. Weiser, in U.S District Court in Colorado on behalf of the clinic Friday. It names Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, members of the Colorado Medical Board, members of the Colorado State Board of Nursing, and three other Colorado district attorneys as defendants.

”All we want is to continue our ministry of serving expecting mothers in need, regardless of circumstance,” said Abby Sinnett, also a nurse practitioner and co-founder of Bella Health. “In their most vulnerable state, a pregnant woman needs to know that she and her unborn child will be treated with the utmost dignity and care.”

Governor Polis put his signature to three bills relating to reproductive health care protection on the same day the suit was filed, including the one Bella is challenging. 

That law is SB23-190, which outlaws deceptive practices by pregnancy resource centers. Critics argue that the clinics’ marketing methods intentionally attempt to convince patients to not terminate their pregnancies. Bella’s lawsuit says the law “actively thwarts women from making that choice” to continue a pregnancy after taking mifepristone by making it illegal for nurses or doctors to assist them or inform them of their options.

Some such clinics use the hormone progesterone to attempt to reverse the effects of mifepristone, which is used to thin the lining of the uterus in a medication abortion. Progesterone can thicken that lining and allow a pregnancy to continue, the clinics say.

In his signing statement on the new law, Governor Polis said the law directs the state medical board to make a decision by Oct. 1, 2023, on whether progesterone can be used “off-label,” that is in order to attempt to reverse the effects of mifepristone. The law bans the clinics from using progesterone in that way until the Board decides to put forward new rules speaking on the matter.

“The standards of practice for medicine should be left to appointed medical professionals in the State driven by the ongoing process of science,” Polis said in the statement.

Medication abortions using mifepristone have recently come under fire while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to overturn the FDA’s approval of the drug.

Weiser has joined an amicus brief filed with a lower federal court urging the medication remain legal.

“Revoking the FDA’s approval of mifepristone despite the overwhelming clinical and research-based evidence establishing mifepristone’s safety and efficacy is unprecedented and will put the lives of countless women at serious risk. This ruling cannot stand,” Weiser said in a statement

In July, Polis signed an executive order barring state agencies from cooperating with out-of-state investigations regarding reproductive health care and decisions around abortion. It came after the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, which had guaranteed access to abortion throughout the United States. Since then, several states have enacted new laws restricting access to abortion, but Colorado has preserved access and the state’s new laws are attempting to strengthen those protections.

Polis’ July executive order also extends protections to providing gender-affirming care to transgender patients facing similar restrictions in their own states.

Another bill Polis signed into law this week requires large employers to offer insurance coverage for the total cost of an abortion with the exception for those on religious grounds. Public employees are exempt from coverage in that law due to the state constitution forbidding the use of public funds for abortions.