This election, Colorado voters aren’t just casting their ballots for local and national office. They’re also weighing in on a ballot initiative that would ban abortions later in pregnancy.
Proposition 115 would ban abortions after 22 weeks unless the pregnant person’s life is immediately threatened, making no exceptions for fetal anomalies or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. Physicians and advocates say it’s medically inappropriate and harmful for pregnant people with health issues, as well as for those who face barriers to seeking earlier abortion care. The Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, the Colorado section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and other state and national medical organizations have come out publicly against Prop 115.
But that hasn’t stopped the organizers of the ballot initiative from trying to suggest that the medical community supports the ban. The group Due Date Too Late is promoting a letter signed by more than 170 medical professionals endorsing their cause. The letter says, “As Healthcare professionals we are totally aware of the science of human development. The humanity of a 22-week fetus is apparent to each of us. There can be no doubt that the 22-week fetus is fully alive and fully human.”
So just who are these members of the Colorado medical community who are so steeped in the latest research on fetal development and the various reasons people need later abortions that they feel the need to opine on a proposed abortion ban?
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A Rewire News Group analysis found that the letter’s signatories include, not unexpectedly, some internists and family medicine doctors. But it also includes many people whose professional expertise is, to put it mildly, far removed from reproductive health.
On the list are six dentists, four psychiatrists, three anesthesiologists, three orthopedic surgeons, two dermatologists, two chiropractors, two gastroenterologists, two endocrinologists, one allergist, one physical therapist, and even an ophthalmologist—you know, a doctor who specializes in eye care. There are just five OB-GYNs, which means that more dentists signed this letter than doctors who treat actual pregnant people.
More than 20 of the signatories appear to be affiliated with Catholic medical practices, including Centura Health, a Catholic and Adventist health system in Colorado. One is a scholar with the anti-abortion Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Abortion is health care, yes, but reproductive care is a specialty that many medical professionals are not equipped to provide—let alone to proclaim whether it should be legal or not. And a list littered with dentists and eye doctors recalls past attempts by anti-abortion politicians and activists to limit access to reproductive care while providing a whiff of medical legitimacy to their cause.
In August 2015, then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal tried to exclude Planned Parenthood from the state Medicaid program following the release of deceptively edited videos alleging that the organization sold fetal tissue. Planned Parenthood sued, and the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals submitted a list of what it said were more than 2,000 other qualified family planning providers in the state that could easily fill the gap if Planned Parenthood were kicked out of Medicaid.
There was just one problem: The list was actually of all the Medicaid-enrolled providers in the state, including eye doctors, nursing homes, and, yes, dentists. After a federal judge called them out, the state submitted an updated list of just 29 family planning providers near New Orleans and Baton Rouge. (The move to exclude Planned Parenthood is blocked as the lawsuit awaits a ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.)
The following month, a coalition of anti-choice groups launched a website purporting to list clinics where people could get birth control, breast exams, and other reproductive health care. It was an attempt to bolster the claim that people have plenty of options besides Planned Parenthood if the organization were to stop receiving federal funding. The site GetYourCare.org went live one day before then-Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards testified before Congress about the deceptively edited videos. But a Rewire News Group investigation found that the site listed hundreds of schools, pediatrics centers, clinics for homeless people, and at least one jail—facilities that do not provide reproductive care.
The Trump administration made similar arguments when it moved to block Planned Parenthood from Title X, the country’s only federally funded family planning program, saying that people could simply visit federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) for birth control instead. But a review from the Guttmacher Institute found that 40 percent of FQHCs aren’t considered safety-net contraceptive providers, while other sites would have to increase their caseload by two to six times to meet the demand. Health Affairs also outlined how community health centers would be unable to pick up the slack.
People will always need birth control and abortions, and there’s no subsitute for high-quality family planning care. And when we say reproductive decisions are made between people and their doctors, we don’t mean their ophthalmologists.