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The Story of Colorado Prop. 115
Dr. Tom Perille, M.D. | 12 November 2020
Colorado Proposition 115 would have restricted abortion after 22 weeks gestation except to preserve the life of the mother. It would not have changed existing Colorado law before 22 weeks. A woman would continue to have the choice to pursue abortion for any reason, including the tragic situations when the child was conceived in rape or incest, or there was a fetal abnormality. Prop 115 was based on the simple premise that if a fetus born prematurely at 22 weeks enjoys all the protections of state/federal law, that same 22-week fetus in utero should not be able to be legally and cruelly killed. With 100% of the vote counted, it failed by a 58.9% to 41.1% margin[i] in a campaign where the abortion industry and abortion special interests outspent the proponents by a factor of more than 10:1.[ii] Prop 115 outperformed three previous ballot initiatives to restrict abortion in Colorado. This trend gives us hope that the tide is gradually turning in our state. Regardless, the failure of Prop 115 can serve as a teaching opportunity for the pro-life community across the country.
What went wrong? Colorado is historically a state that has embraced abortion rights extremism dating back to 1967. Despite this context, early polling suggested restricting late abortion was a policy that would appeal to a majority of the electorate and had a good shot at passing. There were four principal factors that contributed to the ultimate failure of the proposition. First, Prop 115 was a direct threat to the preferred mainstream media narrative that abortion was a moral, compassionate healthcare choice for women and that the fetus was inconsequential. The media provided commentary/stories that translated into millions of dollars of free advertising for our opponents to buttress this narrative. Second, the abortion industry-funded opposition used emotional stories and misinformation effectively to manipulate the electorate. Without the funds to challenge these stories and misinformation, Prop 115 faced strong headwinds. Third, the lack of exceptions for rape, incest, or fetal abnormality were correct from a moral and human rights perspective but possibly fatal from a marketing/political one. Fourth, the pro-life community’s righteous passion was insufficient to overcome problems with disunity, disorganization, and inadequate fundraising.
It was clear early in the campaign that the mainstream media had their finger on the scale. They featured emotional stories of women who chose abortion for a life-limiting fetal diagnosis without providing any information pertaining to the alternatives to late abortion and the abject cruelty of the late abortion procedure.[iii] Virtually every Colorado media outlet perpetuated the myth that abortions after 22 weeks were performed primarily for medical indications and catastrophic fetal abnormalities. They ignored the reality that late abortions were pursued for the same reasons that early abortions were pursued – primarily for financial and social challenges. They ignored the loving, compassionate alternatives to late abortion provided by a wealth of Colorado public and private non-profit organizations, which our campaign highlighted. Finally, the media continued to push the systematic dehumanization of the developing human. The notion that a fully formed 22-week fetus is simply “pregnancy tissue” is repulsive. Yet, there was never a mainstream outlet that was willing to discuss the continuum of human development and the humanizing milestones from conception to birth.
The pro-life community needs to reckon with the fanciful notion that journalists are genuinely interested in impartial coverage of abortion policy. Most journalists, even those from prestigious national news outlets, have a preconceived narrative pertaining to abortion rights and contact pro-life spokespeople to provide the veneer of impartiality. Kaiser Health News, ABC, NBC, AP, and NPR are amongst the news media that interviewed me at length regarding Prop 115. I gave detailed, evidence-based responses to their questions. Each time it became clear that they simply wanted to plug one or two sentences from me into their already formulated pro-abortion rights stories. This suggests that the pro-life community needs to publish more articles in lesser-known but sympathetic, media that can be shared widely, cultivate relationships with editors from mainstream media, and exploit social media more aggressively to get the truth out.
Although we anticipated a campaign of misinformation and emotional manipulation, we underestimated the audacity of the opposition. Fueled by 9.5 million dollars, our opponents were shameless in their campaign. They used physicians to pedal lies and give the opposition campaign the appearance of legitimacy.[iv] Colorado voters were told that women would die if Prop 115 passed. They ignored the fact that after fetal viability, delivery of the baby is the safest and most appropriate medical procedure for a pregnancy-related health urgency or emergency. Their TV ads hammered the idea that families would be forced to carry to term fetuses with horrible life-limiting fetal anomalies. Again, they ignored the fact that prenatal screening for genetic and structural fetal abnormalities is generally completed well before 22 weeks. They also never mentioned perinatal hospice, the compassionate, life-affirming alternative to late abortion for the very rare circumstances in which a life-limiting fetal abnormality is discovered after 22 weeks. During public forums on Prop 115, when asked directly, they avoided describing the late-term abortion procedure. This was very strategic since they are aware of how barbaric and cruel late abortion is. Whether the fetus is killed by dismemberment or by feticide, the fetal pain and suffering is simply unimaginable. Finally, they insisted late abortion was safe, confusing statistics for first-trimester abortion with facts pertaining to second and third-trimester abortion. The CDC long ago established that the risk of dying from abortion increases 38% for each additional week of pregnancy.[v] Prior to this campaign, Planned Parenthood had admitted that by 20 weeks, the risk from abortion was equivalent to childbirth and riskier than most other out-patient surgical procedures. Childbirth occurs in highly regulated hospitals and abortion is totally unlicensed and unregulated in Colorado abortion clinics.
The pro-life leaders who formulated Prop 115 made the decision to only make an exception for the life of the mother. It did not make sense to say that at 22 weeks, Coloradans should recognize the humanity of the fetus and establish their inalienable right to life but then place conditions on those rights. By allowing more exceptions, we would be effectively saying that if a fetus was conceived in rape, had a disability, or life-limiting disease, we could ignore their humanity. Our decision was morally correct but a disaster from a marketing perspective. The opposition used the lack of exceptions to portray the proponents as cruel and lacking compassion. There will always be a tension between doing what is right and making practical choices on what will pass. Others may make different choices.
The proponents of Prop 115 were initially led by the scrappy, volunteer issue committee known as the Coalition for Women and Children (popularly known as DueDateTooLate). In contrast to our opposition, who coalesced around a single well-funded issue committee, the proponents broke into four different issue committees. This may have confused the proposition supporters and made potential donors less confident, which in turn made fundraising languish. It also contributed to unnecessary duplication of administrative tasks and some inconsistency in messaging. Proponents also had to deal with defection from within the prolife community. Colorado Right to Life felt that any law, short of complete abolition, was regulating abortion and therefore immoral. While their motivation was admirable, they chose to discount the estimated 400-500 babies Prop 115 would save every year.
Despite all the challenges, the campaign for Prop 115 was wildly successful. Critical conversations began throughout the state that would never have happened without Prop 115. Many Coloradans were unaware that abortions in the third trimester were even legal. They learned about the humanity of the developing fetus, reasons women pursue late abortion, the alternatives to late abortion, the gruesome nature of the procedure, and the risk to the life and health of women. The campaign was an invaluable tool to educate the public and change hearts and minds. More Coloradans supported 115 than any previous abortion restriction effort. If nothing else, Prop 115 did a remarkable service by publicizing resources for pregnant women and highlighting the role of perinatal hospice.
Citizens in other states contemplating a ballot initiative like Prop 115 might benefit from our experience. Significant time and effort should be spent educating the public long before a petition drive to place an issue on the ballot is initiated. It is important to frame the conversation before it is framed by the opposition. All the diverse (political, religious, ethnic, racial, and socio-economic) pro-life constituencies in the state should meet and create a single, transparent, and professional issue committee to support the effort. Professional fundraising should commence before the first signature is gathered. Medical and legal experts should be recruited early in the campaign to establish compelling fact-based talking points to drive the petition process and later the campaign. Women with pregnancy challenges who don’t pursue abortion and those with tragic abortion-related stories should be identified and asked to publicly share their stories. Emotional stories trump scientific and moral arguments in the eyes of the public. By taking these steps, the chances for success are significantly increased.
Through ballot initiatives, we can slowly change public opinion. They are one of the best tools we have to move towards a world where abortion is unthinkable.
[iii] See https://www.denverpost.com/2019/12/06/colorado-late-term-abortion-ban-decline-to-sign/ and https://www.denverpost.com/2020/10/27/guest-commentary-proposition-115-limiting-abortion-care-in-colorado-would-impact-people-like-me/.
Dr. Tom Perille, M.D.
Head, Medical Advisory Team, Coalition for Women and Children
President, Democrats for Life of Colorado