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‘It’s not extraordinary; it’s health care,’ says leader of Colorado abortion ballot initiative


‘It’s not extraordinary; it’s health care,’ says leader of Colorado abortion ballot initiative

Apr 12, 2024 | 9:15 am ET
By Sofia Resnick
Jessica Grennan, campaign director of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom (courtesy of Jessica Grennan) 

Jessica Grennan, campaign director of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom (courtesy of Jessica Grennan) 

Of the nearly dozen states with citizen-led initiatives to enshrine abortion rights on the ballot this fall, Colorado has the most liberal abortion laws. It is one of the few states with no gestational limits.

But Jessica Grennan, campaign director of Coloradans for Protecting Reproductive Freedom, says that many in the state face financial barriers when it comes to abortion access. The coalition of reproductive health and justice groups is trying to put a constitutional amendment on November’s ballot that would preserve abortion rights and also drop a 40-year-old law that prohibits Coloradans from paying for abortions with public insurance. As Colorado Newsline has reported, proposed Initiative 89 would lift access for the approximately 1 million people who work at public institutions like hospitals, universities and the Capitol, as well as those covered by state Medicaid. 

The coalition includes seven organizations which Grennan said have been trying to expand reproductive health access in the state for the past decade: ACLU Colorado, Cobalt (an abortion fund), Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, New Era Colorado, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and ProgressNow Colorado. The coalition has until April 26 to gather nearly 125,000 valid signatures, which must include at least 2% of the total registered electors in each of the 35 state Senate districts. The campaign announced Friday in a press release that it has collected more than 225,000 signatures, and is now qualified in all 35 state senate districts.

“The news of Arizona’s near-total abortion ban ultimately exposed just how vulnerable every state is, and will remain, without passing legislation that constitutionally secures the right to abortion,” Grennan said in the press release.

The petition for a dueling ballot initiative to ban abortion in Colorado is due April 18.

A longtime campaign strategist, Grennan has worked on a variety of ballot initiative campaigns in different states, including those related to medical debt and end-of-life choices. Abortion rights is a newer issue for Grennan, and it cuts deep for her as someone who has struggled with medical debt for her own reproductive health care. 

Based in Missoula, Montana, Grennan recently sat down with States Newsroom outside a cafe on a rainy afternoon in Washington, D.C., to give an update on Colorado’s abortion-rights campaign, which she said is on target to qualify for the ballot later this month. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

States Newsroom: Colorado is a blue state with liberal abortion laws. Why is this ballot measure necessary?

Jessica Grennan: Colorado is a state with abortion access in the laws, but we don’t have a constitutional right to abortion access, and then folks that are on state insurance plans don’t have that access. … So, we’re removing that ban and we’re also making sure it’s a constitutional right. We’re essentially saying that Coloradans have a right to an abortion regardless of where their insurance is from. Abortion is health care. It’s not extraordinary; it’s health care. We’re, I think, making T-shirts that say, “Abortion is health care, no asterisk,” and that’s what the measure does. 

SN: How close are you to qualifying for the ballot in November?

Grennan: We’re in a good position to turn in way above the legal requirement. But we’re not going to stop collecting. … We feel really comfortable where we’re at, like we went through the title board process; it went well. Now we’re just out there collecting signatures. I feel confident, but it’s always harder to pass something than it is to kill something, both in legislation and in ballot measures. And I think we have a fight ahead of us. But I think once folks hear our stories, and hear from our volunteers and hear from the folks in the trenches – doctors, patients – we’re going to win.

SN: Why do you think you’re going to win?

Grennan: People are seeking out our signature gatherers, and that’s been really awesome. Like people are really excited. They hear we’re in town, and they’re like, “That’s the abortion one?” And we’re like, “Yes!” A lot of people always come up to me and they’re like, “You know, I’m with you,” and I’m like, so is everyone else. … I think abortion is one of those issues right now that the people are ahead of politicians on. Politicians are risk averse on it. But people want access to their health care, and they don't want other folks telling them what is good for them and their family. 

SN: What have been some of the challenges for this campaign?

Grennan: Yes campaigns are always harder than no campaigns. Yeses are more expensive. We have to get 55% of the vote. But we have this killer volunteer [program]. We’ve trained over 1,100 people to collect signatures. … I’m ecstatic by the volunteer program. I’m ecstatic by the voters in Colorado. We’ll get reports [from volunteers], like, “We asked these parents to sign the petitions and they’re like, ‘No we’re busy,’ and the kids are like, ‘Mom, Dad, you have to do it for me.’” I get goosebumps when I hear those stories.

SN: Are you aware of how the anti-abortion ballot initiative campaign for proposed Initiative 81 is going?

Grennan: I don’t know. We’ve seen them out a little bit, but not too much. We’ll know April 17 [The campaign’s petition is due April 18] if they are on or not. 

SN: Is it possible that both ballot measures could be on the ballot in November?

Grennan: Yes, it is hypothetically very possible. And then it’s generally the initiative with the highest percentage of votes that would be the one that wins.

SN: You previously ran a campaign in Arizona related to medical debt. How does that relate to the public insurance piece of Colorado’s proposed ballot measure?

Grennan: I ran a ballot measure on medical debt when I was in the middle of dealing with my own medical debt, trying to find anesthesiologists that were in network. So, I really care about access to health care. Rights and access to health care can’t be distinguished.

SN: You’ve helped run various issue campaigns around the country. How did you come to work on Colorado’s abortion-rights campaign?

Grennan: Actually, one of the coalition members called me when I was outside of my gynecologist’s office in Idaho, because I have really severe endometriosis [an often painful condition that affects reproductive organs and can make it difficult to conceive]. And she asked me if I would consider this. And I’m like, I get a chance to work on abortion policy? Hell yeah. I just feel really honored to get to do this work. 

SN: How do you connect your experience with endometriosis to fighting for abortion access?

Grennan: Because of not getting the care I needed over my lifetime. I was hospitalized when I was 15. It took me 26 years for my first hospitalization to get diagnosed. I had seven surgeries on something that should have been taken care of. It wasn’t, and now I get to do something to put health care in patients’ control, and that’s a big deal to me.

I didn’t get to make decisions – a lot of people don’t. And when you don’t have medical decision-making capabilities [to make] the best decision for you, for your life, for your family, it’s just really hard. I want to prevent that from happening. And I get to work with a really great coalition that knows what their true north is, and we care about access to care.

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