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Federal judge blocks Colorado ban on abortion reversal treatment

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Federal judge blocks Colorado ban on abortion reversal treatment

Oct 23, 2023 | 4:52 pm ET
By Sara Wilson
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Federal judge blocks Colorado ban on abortion reversal treatment
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(Photo illustration by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

A federal judge over the weekend blocked the enforcement of a first-in-the-nation ban on an abortion reversal procedure in Colorado, allowing clinics to continue advertising and offering the practice.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico granted a preliminary injunction against the law on behalf of Bella Health and Wellness, a Catholic clinic in Englewood that sued to challenge the law the day it was signed. Domenico argued in his ruling that the law violates the clinic’s religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment.

“There is no question whether [the law] burdens Bella Health’s free exercise of religion. It does. Bella Health considers it a religious obligation to provide treatment for pregnant mothers and to protect unborn life if the mother seeks to stop or reverse an abortion,” he wrote.

Senate Bill 23-190, passed by state lawmakers this year as part of a package to bolster abortion access and reproductive health care, declares abortion pill reversal to be unprofessional conduct. It would have been defunct if the state’s boards of pharmacy, nursing and medicine all decided abortion reversal is an accepted standard of practice, but the boards did not come to that conclusion.

Abortion reversal ban survives test of Colorado regulatory board rules

Abortion pill reversal refers to the idea that the effects of mifepristone, the first pill in the medication abortion process, can be undone if a patient who hopes to retain the pregnancy decides not to take the second pill and instead takes a high dose of progesterone to offset the effects of mifepristone.

The treatment is often provided in anti-abortion centers, sometimes called crisis-pregnancy centers, such as Bella Health, which seek to counsel pregnant people against abortion. These centers are almost entirely faith-based, and the plaintiffs at Bella Health argued that their religion compelled them to assist patients who wanted the treatment.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says abortion reversal is not supported by science.

“We are disappointed. We know that we have the science, the medicine and the data to back it up. It feels like the evidence didn’t matter and we’re now in a scary time where the science isn’t mattering to some people and it is ideological,” said Katherine Riley, the policy director at the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, or COLOR, which championed the bill. The group is continuing to do grassroots organizing and messaging about anti-abortion clinics and abortion reversal.

Domenico found that the state would have to meet a higher burden of legal proof, known as strict scrutiny, to enforce the law because the practice is religious in nature.

“The State generally cannot regulate an activity if that regulation burdens religious exercise, provides for individualized exceptions, fails to regulate comparable secular activities that raise similar risks, and otherwise targets religious activity. The law at issue here runs afoul of these First Amendment principles. And because it does, the State must come forward with a compelling interest of the highest order to maintain the law. It has not even attempted to do so,” Domenico wrote.

Riley said that lawmakers in other states can still look to Colorado’s effort as an example, including of things to avoid when talking about the intent of the legislation.

“The judge picked up some of the comments made by the (bill sponsor) around anti-abortion centers being faith-based. While they definitely are and that’s how they would describe themselves, the reason we brought this bill was not because we were trying to limit their practices. We’re trying to protect patients and what we’re asking for is transparency and no deception,” she said.

Domenico also granted an injunction on the law’s deceptive advertising provision as it applies to Bella Health using certain phrases such as “comprehensive, life-affirming OB-GYN practice” and “comprehensive, life-affirming health care.”

The state has 30 days to appeal the decision.

“We are relieved and overjoyed to continue helping the many women who come to our clinic seeking help,” Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, co-founders of Bella Health, said in a statement after the decision.

Christina Soliz, Deputy Director for New Era Colorado, said in a statement that through its work, the organization knows that young people support medically transparent abortion and reproductive care. New Era worked on the bill as well.

“As the reproductive landscape continues to evolve in Colorado and across the country, we have a message for young people: now is the time to advocate for yourself and your community; now is the time to get involved in the fight to take abortion care beyond a legally protected right to an actually accessible health care option; and at New Era Colorado, we will continue to harness young people’s political power until we co-create a Colorado that truly respects and represents everyone’s bodily autonomy,” she said.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. on Oct. 23, 2023, to include comments from Katherine Riley and at 2 p.m. on Oct. 27 to include comments from Christina Soliz.