She Won’t ‘Accept a Label’ on Abortion, But This Colorado Gubernatorial Candidate Engineered Planned Parenthood’s Defunding

Court documents uncovered by Rewire.News show that Cynthia Coffman spearheaded a successful effort 17 years ago to strip Planned Parenthood of state funds for its non-abortion family planning services.

[Photo: A photo of Cynthia Coffman.]
Coffman, who is Colorado's attorney general, says she doesn't want to be called "pro-choice," because she doesn't "accept a label," and she opposes the landmark Roe v. Wade, even though she thinks the law is settled. CBS Denver / YouTube

Since entering the Republican primary race to be governor of Colorado, Cynthia Coffman has said abortion should be “rare” and “safe,” and described her opinion on abortion rights as “not on either end of the spectrum.”

Coffman, who is in her first term as Colorado’s attorney general, also says she doesn’t want to be called “pro-choice” because she doesn’t “accept a label,” and she personally disagrees with Roe v. Wade, even though she thinks the law is settled.

Such statements have generated media coverage touting Coffman’s “moderate record” and “centrist views.” But Coffman’s vacillating positions on abortion rights are inconsistent with her history as a leading figure in Colorado’s anti-abortion movement.

Court documents recently uncovered by Rewire.News show that when Colorado Republicans last controlled the governor’s office, Coffman spearheaded a successful effort to strip Planned Parenthood of state funds for its non-abortion family planning services.

Since 1984, Colorado’s constitution banned the state from “directly or indirectly” funding abortion care. But in 2001, Jane Norton, who directed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and Coffman, whom Norton hired as her director of legal and regulatory affairs, argued that the state was subsidizing abortion services by paying Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains (PPRM) for family planning. This, Coffman and Norton argued, violated the constitutional ban on indirect funding of abortion care.

To execute the policy, which resulted in CDPHE’s December 2001 decision to defund PPRM, Norton turned to Coffman.

Coffman informed PPRM of the conditions, including leasing of separate buildings and installing new signs, that PPRM would have to meet to continue to receive state funds for family planning. Planned Parenthood Services Corporation, a separate legal entity, offered abortion services at the time.

The negotiations officially ended when CDPHE issued a news release announcing the health department had notified Planned Parenthood it was ineligible to receive state funds.

The CDPHE news release featured a quote from Coffman, who went by Cynthia Honssinger at the time: “If Planned Parenthood wants to accept state tax dollars, it is their responsibility to demonstrate that they comply with the state Constitution. They were found in an independent, outside review to be out of compliance and refused to take corrective action. It would be a violation of the Colorado Constitution for us to sign a contract with them.”

On the same day that the defunding news release went out, Coffman sent a letter to PPRM attorneys informing them that CDPHE was “merely following the state constitutional provision prohibiting the direct or indirect funding of abortion with state tax dollars.”

Coffman wrote that CDPHE’s decision, which affected about 4,700 people with low incomes but did not halt all state funding for PPRM, was a “common sense application of the law to the facts at hand.”

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled last month that banning the state from funding Planned Parenthood’s non-abortion services would have “absurd” results, a decision at odds with the “common sense legal application” described by Coffman 17 years ago. The court ruling came after Norton, backed by attorneys for the anti-abortion Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF), sued the state to defund Planned Parenthood, citing Coffman’s legal opinion that such funding is unconstitutional in Colorado.

Coffman did not respond to request for comment from Rewire.News. When she was asked before a February 21 debate if she still opposes Planned Parenthood funding, she said her answer would require a “longer conversation” for another time, indicating that her position might have shifted.

If such a shift occurred, it happened after 2010 while campaigning for Norton. On the campaign trail, she told an approving crowd that she and Norton “defunded Planned Parenthood” because it was “using public funds to subsidize abortion.”

As attorney general, Coffman rebuffed 30 Republican legislators who called on her in 2015 to investigate Planned Parenthood after an anti-choice front group released discredited videos depicting Planned Parenthood officials discussing fetal-tissue programs. Coffman argued that she did not have jurisdiction to conduct an investigation.

At the time, Kristi Burton Brown, who helped organize Colorado’s first statewide vote on a “personhood” abortion ban in 2008, called Coffman “pro-life.” Brown did not return a call from Rewire.News seeking comment.

Michael J. Norton, Jane Norton’s husband and an attorney who worked for the ADF when her case was filed, did not return a call seeking comment.

A February poll underscores the importance of abortion to Colorado Republicans. Forty-seven percent of GOP voters in the state say they would not consider voting for a pro-choice candidate in the primary, according to a poll released by a Republican consulting firm. Thirty-six percent they would consider a pro-choice candidate. Sixty-seven percent of Colorado Republican voters surveyed called themselves “pro-life.”

Asked if Coffman’s abortion stance will matter at the Colorado Republican assembly in April, when the primary election ballot will be determined, former vice chair of the Colorado Republican Party Derrick Wilburn told Rewire.News, “I think it could come into play, because the pro-life contingent has pretty good muscle within the Republican family. But no candidate has armor with no chinks in it.”

In response to a news report describing Coffman as “pro-choice,” Victor Mitchell, a former state representative, wrote on Facebook last year that the Colorado Republican Party “should nominate pro-life candidates” and “to do otherwise is to abandon our values.” Mitchell is running against Coffman for the GOP gubernatorial nomination.

Federal funding for family planning services was never restored to PPRM because the money was reallocated to community health centers across the state, but Planned Parenthood today receives other state funds for health care and related services.