Clinic says promise not to enforce abortion law not enough

Apr 24, 2023, 11:36 AM | Updated: 3:30 pm

DENVER (AP) — The owner of a Catholic clinic challenging Colorado’s new ban on unproven treatments to reverse medication abortions testified Monday that a state pledge not to enforce the ban for now wasn’t enough to protect her staff and patients.

At a hearing in federal court, Dede Chism, co-founder and CEO of Bella Health and Wellness, said state lawmakers’ comments during debate on the measure about wanting to come after faith-based clinics like hers made her fearful. She said she worried about what could happen at the clinic if she continued to offer the treatments to women who wanted to stop a medication abortion.

“A promise is just a promise. I feel like I need something a little more concrete,” she said at the hearing, which was held to determine if U.S. District Judge Daniel Domenico’s judge’s temporary order stopping enforcement of the new law against her clinic should be extended.

Domenico said he would issue a ruling a couple of days before his temporary order is set to expire on Saturday. As Colorado’s former state solicitor who worked in the state attorney general’s office, he disclosed that he has worked with lawyers representing the state in the case and had also served on an advisory board to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Bella Health. But he said he did not think that required him to give the case to another judge.

The ban, believed to be the only one in the United States, was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis on April 14. It says health care workers who provide “medication abortion reversal treatments” would be engaging in unprofessional conduct and could be disciplined for providing them unless state regulators pass rules saying that they are “generally accepted standard of practice.” It gave the medical, nursing and pharmacy boards until Oct. 1 to enact rules on it.

In response to Bella Health’s lawsuit, the state’s medical and nursing boards voted not to enforce the ban until a rulemaking process on the treatments is completed, which is expected to be in September. It’s not clear whether the pharmacy board has taken any action in response to the lawsuit.

When Domenico questioned what more granting a preliminary injunction could do given the state’s assurances, one of Bella Health’s lawyers, Mark Rienzi, said that the state hasn’t promised it would not later go back and retroactively discipline Chism or others at her clinic for their actions during the pause on enforcement. He said an order from Domenico would bind the state in how it could act.

The new law also attempts to crack down on organizations that advertise that they offer abortion or emergency contraception but do not, labeling that a “deceptive trade practice” under the state’s consumer protection law. In the preamble to the law, which is not part of law itself, state lawmakers also declared that medication abortion reversal is a “dangerous and deceptive practice” that is not supported by science.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Natalie Hanlon Leh testified that the abortion law’s change to the consumer protection law did not really change anything since it already makes deceiving consumers in any way illegal. She also said the state attorney general’s office would not prosecute any clinic simply for advertising abortion reversal treatments under that law while the state boards consider how to classify the treatments.

Bella Health gives doses of the hormone progesterone to women who have taken the abortion pill mifepristone, which inhibits progesterone, and decide not to continue the abortion process by taking a second drug, misoprostol.

Doctors use progesterone to try to prevent miscarriages. However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says using it to try to reverse medication abortions is “unproven and unethical.”

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

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Clinic says promise not to enforce abortion law not enough