Colorado Was First State to Legalize Abortion: Why Are We Still Talking About It?

Colorado Was First State to Legalize Abortion: Why Are We Still Talking About It?

The stunning avalanche of action set in motion by the U.S. Supreme Court's inaction on same-sex marriage last week shows just how quickly this country can change.

So why, nearly fifty years after Colorado became the first state in the union to legalize abortion, have we not put this equally sticky issue to bed? Why are we watching Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez play doctor, telling us that an IUD is abortifacient (when an actual doctor will tell you that while an IUD is a very effective form of birth control, it does not induce abortions) and listening to Senate candidate Cory Gardner, that randy Republican, talk about how he picked up birth-control prescriptions for his wife (not IUDs, clearly...and not that many prescriptions, either, judging by the size of his expanding family) while sidestepping the fact that he's pushed federal Personhood laws?

Has any other issue in this country had such a lengthy labor?

See also: Look Who's Mad at Dick Lamm Now!

If the U.S. Supreme Court determined more than four decades ago with its Roe v. Wade decision that abortions are part of a woman's fundamental right to privacy, why does this fight continue to be so very public?

Colorado was the first state to legalize abortion.
Colorado was the first state to legalize abortion.
Library of Congress

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Dick Lamm was a brand-new legislator representing a largely Catholic district when he brought up the hot topic of abortion in the Colorado General Assembly. "I thought I was committing political suicide," Lamm recalls. "I introduced that bill about six weeks into stepping into the state legislature. I was not at all looking to a political career -- but look at what I was really risking."

What the accountant/attorney was risking turned out to be a major political career that changed the future of this state, with three terms as Colorado governor, a quixotic run for president as the Reform Party's candidate in 1996, and now senior-statesman status at the University of Denver, where, as co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies, Lamm continues to talk about tough topics and hard choices.

He got interested in the tough topic of abortion back in 1963, when he and new wife Dottie were in Peru and learned that a local Catholic priest was distributing condoms to his congregation: Although birth control was against the Church's teachings, it was better than the botched abortions that were filling local hospital beds, the priest told them. Lamm knew that illegal abortions were being done in this country, too, and when he returned to Denver, he decided it was time to bring the practice out into the open -- and under the protection of the law.

Dick Lamm today.
Dick Lamm today.

With the bill that Lamm pushed through a Republican-controlled legislature, an abortion still required the consent of a woman's parents or spouse and a three-doctor panel -- but for the first time, the procedure could be done safely and legally in this country, right here in Colorado. After Republican governor John Love signed that bill into law in 1967, Time magazine featured Lamm in a story on hot-button political issues, and he testified in a half-dozen states that were considering similar legislation, including New York. "I was a symbol of someone who touched fire and survived," he remembers.

Five years after the abortion battle, Lamm touched fire again: fighting the 1976 Winter Olympics that had already been awarded to Colorado. He convinced voters that the Games were not a good deal for Coloradans, arguing that they had to consider who pays -- and who plays. He took his campaign on a walking tour of the state, and wound up walking himself right into the Governor's Mansion in 1974. "The two great successes of my early years in the legislature were the Olympics and abortion," he says today. "And neither of them are settled; they just haunt me, like Lazarus."

He recognizes why an Olympics bid sometimes looks attractive; on the surface, it can seem like an economic win -- even if that glossy image covers a big money pit. But this campaign season's so-called War on Women that has Republicans stoking the anti-abortion fires isn't as easy to understand. "I do have a certain grudging respect for people who throw themselves at almost any cause," Lamm says. "If the Supreme Court had decided that slavery was legal, I wouldn't give up, either." But while he grants people the "dignity of their beliefs," that doesn't mean he's going to surrender.

Lamm points to several reasons that the topic of abortion has taken off. Again. "The technology is so vivid right now," he points out. "You can look at that little baby in the sonogram -- even I use that word -- and it is so real, and it is so dramatic. It is an incredibly useful tool." Back in 1967, his opponents were waving signs and holding bottled fetuses. Now they have iPhone photos.

But some things haven't changed: "Anti-abortion people are monomaniacal on this issue," says Lamm, noting that they were that way in 1967, and they still are today. "Any single-issue voter has a certain amount of leverage. Liberals have many issues.... Our passions encompass numerous causes."

The Republicans he worked with almost fifty years ago had other causes, too. But social-issue fights have marginalized the Republican Party. "We lost so many good Republicans on this," he says. "This issue has had its impact far beyond abortion."

And now, nearly fifty years after Colorado became the first state to legalize abortion, it could have an outsized impact again, if it gets women to the polls. Back in 1967, the pro-choice campaign was backed by "an incredible amount of dynamic young women out to change the world," Lamm recalls. "Now there are a lot of dynamic young women, but they have turned to other things." They have applied their considerable energy to other causes, because for two generations now, women have assumed that the battle is over and that the right to an abortion is here to stay.

"I tell my students: Talk to your grandmothers," says Lamm. "It was such a different era. We've come so far -- but this just keeps hanging on."

Send tips to patricia.calhoun@westword.com.


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