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Federal judge blocks Colorado from enforcing nation's first law banning abortion reversal treatments

The new law, if enforced, would discipline healthcare workers for engaging in “unprofessional conduct” for providing medication abortion reversal treatments
Colorado voters reject ballot measure that would have banned abortions after 22 weeks
Posted at 6:06 PM, Oct 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-23 20:06:36-04

DENVER – A federal judge has blocked the state of Colorado from enforcing a new law that bans the use of abortion pill reversal treatments.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel D. Domenico granted the preliminary injunction in favor of Bella Health and Wellness late Saturday on the grounds that the law infringes upon the Englewood faith-based clinic’s rights to free speech and religion.

The Saturday night ruling came six months after Bella Health first sued the state hours after the ban was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis.

What does the law say and why was Bella Health against it?

SB23-190 outlaws “deceptive practices” by anti-abortion centers, which are known to market themselves as abortion clinics but don’t actually offer the procedure, and also states healthcare workers who provide “medication abortion reversal treatments” are engaged in unprofessional conduct and could be disciplined for providing them unless regulators agreed they were a “generally accepted standard of practice.”

The abortion pill reversal treatment at the center of the new law is a hormone called progesterone given to women who decide not to continue with their abortions after taking the abortion pill mifepristone, which inhibits progesterone, a hormone that helps maintain a pregnancy.

While a preliminary injunction in favor of the Englewood faith-based clinic was thrown out earlier this year after the state pledged not to enforce the law until it completed the rulemaking process, Bella Health again sued after the state’s medical boards concluded earlier this month that the administration of progesterone did not meet “generally accepted standards of medical practice.”

The view by the state’s medical boards is shared by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who have previously said using progesterone to try to reverse abortion medication is “unproven and unethical.”

Still, Bella Health argued, having the state enforce the ban on abortion reversal treatments would have interfered with the faith-based clinic’s stated purpose of promoting and protecting life “from natural conception to natural death” in accordance with Catholic teachings.

Domenico agreed.

The ruling

“There is no question whether (the new law) burdens Bella Health’s free exercise of religion. It does,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “Bella Health considers it a religious obligation to provide treatment for pregnant mothers and to protect un-born life if the mother seeks to stop or reverse an abortion.”

Domenico not only blocked enforcement of the new law but went further by also blocking another portion of SB23-190 that would have led to sanctions from the state for misleading advertisements aimed at making patients believe a clinic offers abortion services when it does not.

Colorado medical boards consider draft rule on abortion reversal treatment

In all, three issues were at the center of the judge’s ruling.

First, Domenico argued that the state’s interests in regulating the medical profession were “undermined by the disparate treatment of comparable secular activity,” as the new law “treats comparable secular activity more favorably than Bella Health’s religious activity.”

“The State first argues that abortion pill reversal stands alone and that there is no comparable secular activity,” Domenico wrote. “In other words, according to the State, its asserted interest is so narrowly defined as to only encompass a ban on abortion pill reversal, and possibly only progesterone-based abortion pill reversal.”

Second, he argued that the state’s three medical boards opted to ban “the usage of progesterone for abortion pill reversal outright,” while maintaining that the use of other drugs for abortion reversal will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, potentially leading to discrimination based on religious beliefs.

Lastly, Domenico argued that the burden of the law would end up primarily affecting those with religious convictions.

“It seems clear then, both given this legislative history and the bill’s text itself, that the legislature was aware that the burden of this prohibition would primarily fall on religious adherents,” Domenico wrote in closing arguments.

"Relieved and overjoyed"

Rebekah Ricketts, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Bella Health in the case, said in a statement Sunday the ruling, “ensures that pregnant women across the state will receive the care they deserve and won’t be forced to have abortions against their will.”

From their part, both Dede Chism and Abby Sinnett, cofounders of Bella Health and Wellness, said they were “relieved and overjoyed to continue helping the many women who come to our clinic seeking help.”

Colorado has 30 days to appeal the decision to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

About a dozen states have passed laws compelling abortion providers to tell their patients about abortion reversal treatments. However, according to the Guttmacher Institute, Colorado is the only state that has banned them.