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Colorado lawmakers hope to regulate anti-abortion pregnancy centers

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Erica Zwahlen testified in support of Senate Bill 190, which aims to regulate anti-abortion "crisis pregnancy centers."

Update: Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 190 into law Friday, Apil 14, 2023. You can read our original reporting below.


DENVER — Erica Zwahlen spiraled into fear at 19 years old after she realized she may be pregnant. Then a freshman at the University of Colorado Boulder, Zwahlen knew she was in no place to raise a child.

She flipped through a campus coupon book and discovered a “free pregnancy test” coupon that could be used for a nearby pregnancy resource center. 

Zwahlen went to the center expecting judgment-free care and knowledge about her various options. What she was met, she recalled, with could not have been further from her hopes.

“It was extremely stigmatizing and very scary,” Zwahlen said. “I thought, ‘Why am I being so judged and where is all of this coming from? I thought this was a health center.’”

Rather than a true resource center, Zwahlen unknowingly found herself at a faith-based, anti-abortion center. The center did give her a free pregnancy test, she said, but required her to take the test in-house. While she waited for results, Zwahlen said she was inundated with anti-abortion rhetoric, scolds for being sexually active before marriage and pressure to make a quick decision if the test was positive. 

The test came back negative, which Zwahlen said gave her a massive sigh of relief.

“I kind of felt trapped and I felt like I couldn’t leave because I wanted the results,”  Zwahlen said. “If the result had been different, I can’t imagine finding out something that monumental in a space that had been so unsafe and so hostile.”

Colorado VoicesColorado bill targets anti-abortion centers

Colorado SB 190, which aims to regulate anti-abortion pregnancy centers

A bill currently being considered in Colorado legislature titled “Deceptive Trade Practice Pregnancy-related Service” would make it a “deceptive trade practice” for such centers, often referred to as crisis pregnancy centers, to market themselves as places that provide abortion or emergency contraception when they do not. 

The bill, which has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, would also regulate “abortion reversal pills." Pregnancy resource centers often offer “abortion reversal bills,” though research is slim on the efficacy and safety of such pills. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has disavowed such pills and referred to them as “not supported by science.”

Bill supporters like Zwahlen said they do not want pregnancy centers banned. Rather, they want such centers to be more transparent about what services they actually offer so that those seeking abortion and emergency contraception can find that care elsewhere.

“People should be able to receive the care they want, but the part of it that’s bad is trying to deceive people who have already made up their mind about what they want to do with their pregnancy,” said Arianna Morales, policy manager at New Era Colorado, a nonprofit group that advocates for young people in the state. “What’s deceitful is them trying to target people to come into their centers and providing medical misinformation and trying to delay the care they need.”

Colorado has 51 crisis pregnancy centers and 20 abortion clinics, Morales said. Many of the centers are found near college campuses or in low-income areas, where nearby residents may not have as much access to information about abortion or there are no abortion providers nearby.

“They’re trying to deceive very specific people when it comes to these places,” said Aurea Bolaños Perea, strategic communications director at COLOR Latina, a reproductive rights organization. “These groups that fund fake clinics put a lot of money into marketing in Spanish media, Spanish billboards and areas that are heavily Spanish-speaking communities.”

Public health researchers at the University of Georgia have mapped all of the operating crisis pregnancy centers in the U.S. The researchers found that most of the centers are affiliated "with national religious organizations who oppose abortion and have policies against promoting and providing contraception" and that the centers "frequently provide inaccurate and misleading health information."

Despite this, some states are moving in the opposite direction of Colorado by using taxpayer dollars to fund crisis pregnancy centers. For example, Texas has funneled more than $200 million to anti-abortin centers since 2010.

[Related: Millions in tax dollars flow to anti-abortion centers in US]

Bolaños Perea said Latinas are heavier targets of abortion misinformation than any other demographic, which was true even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“We have existed in this country without access to abortion because Roe wasn't made for us," she said.

Zwahlen said she did not realize just how deceptive and traumatic the experience was for her until years later while taking a history course in graduate school. The professor discussed “anti-abortion centers posing as pregnancy resource centers,” and Zwahlen was hit with a wave of understanding about what had happened to her.

“It was one of the most vulnerable times in my life, and I can’t imagine what it would’ve been like to find out something so monumental in a place like that,” Zwahlen said. “When you’re looking for something like an abortion, their tactics are to get you into their spaces and you have no idea what you’re going for.”

Senate Bill 190, which would regulate these centers, heads to the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.


Alison Berg is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at alisonberg@rmpbs.org.

Julio Sandoval is a multimedia journalist with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at juliosandoval@rmpbs.org.

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