Pueblo city council rejects abortion ordinance, avoiding showdown with Colorado

Pueblo’s City Council voted down a proposal Monday night that would’ve effectively banned abortions in the city, ending a contentious month-long saga that threatened to pit Pueblo against state law and drag it to the forefront of America’s abortion fight.

After the council president read a statement criticizing the measure as hastily drafted and outside the body’s authority, the council voted 4-3 to pull it from the agenda and table it, effectively killing it. It had passed two weeks before on an initial reading, albeit because some council members — who complained that they knew little about it — wanted more information about it before making a final decision.

The ordinance would’ve banned providers in Pueblo from receiving abortion-related materials in the mail under a federal law that’s nearly 150 years old. Experts and opponents of the ordinance cast the approach as the latest attempt by anti-abortion activists to limit abortion access nationally, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision in June that struck down Roe vs. Wade. Supporters said they wanted Pueblo to be in compliance with federal law and that the ordinance wouldn’t specifically ban abortion.

Heather Graham, the council’s president, criticized how the ordinance was introduced and said regulating abortion wasn’t the council’s job. Reading from a prepared statement, she noted that the full council had received a draft the day before Thanksgiving and had little time to consider it or receive legal advice before an initial vote on Nov. 28. She accused unnamed city officials of not caring “who they run over if it benefits their agenda.”

After Graham moved to table the ordinance, Councilwoman Regina Maestri, who introduced and supported it, defended the process and criticized Graham’s attempt to kill it.

“The voice of the people is the voice of the people,” she said. “If you want to table it, that’s on you, and whoever votes for that is your choice.”

The saga brought the national fight over abortion access to Pueblo. Two of the three men who testified in favor of the ordinance Monday are from Texas, including its former solicitor general, and similar ordinances have been introduced elsewhere in the U.S. It would’ve allowed Pueblo residents to file lawsuits — for at least $100,000 apiece — against providers who received abortion materials in the mail. It’s a similar method used under Texas law to limit abortions there, an approach that Pueblo’s city attorney, Dan Kogovsek, told the council was unprecedented.

Kogovsek, whose office previously recommended that the ordinance be rejected, criticized it and the attorneys backing it Monday night. He said the underlying federal law — pushed forward in the 1870s by an obscenity crusader concerned about pornography in the mail — had never been enforced for abortion materials.

“And our friends from Austin and Denver want the city to enact a local ordinance implementing federal law,” he said, referring to two anti-abortion attorneys who told the council the ordinance was enforceable and legal, “and they can’t show you one case where it was successfully implemented. Not one. There are no cases.”

Had it passed, the proposal would’ve been a first test for Colorado’s new Reproductive Health Equity Act, or RHEA, which passed in March. The law broadly prohibits state or local officials from limiting access to abortion services, and its sponsor — Pueblo Democratic Rep. Daneya Esgar — told the council Monday that the ordinance would violate it.

Councilman Dennis Flores asked Esgar and Kogovsek if the Attorney General’s Office would sue the city for violating RHEA, should the ordinance pass. Esgar demurred but noted that Attorney General Phil Weiser had publicly said he would defend the act.

Kogovsek was more direct.

“I think I can say with some confidence that if this passes tonight, we will be sued before Christmas,” he said.

Debate around the proposal, which was first publicly discussed on Nov. 14, drew packed crowds who waved signs and frequently jeered each other and city officials. The ordinance’s language prompted the city’s legal staff to recommend it be dropped and local OBGYNs to warn that its passage would harm reproductive health care in the region, something supporters said was false. Accusations of out-of-state interference have flown in both directions: Pro-abortion access advocates decried the influence of Texas activists in drafting the ordinance, while Maestri said the first foreign intrusion came from an abortion clinic that planned to open in town.

Maestri, who sponsored the ordinance, and other supporters have said the federal law underpinning the ordinance would trump RHEA. She repeated that position Monday in a contentious back-and-forth with Kogovsek, who repeatedly told her he thought the federal law was unconstitutional and that’s why it hadn’t been enforced before.

Maestri and other supporters of the ordinance have cast it as a response to concerns about a specific provider who in September announced plans to open a new — and only — clinic in Pueblo. Maestri and fellow Councilwoman Lori Winner both also expressed concerns about a lack of regulation governing abortion in Colorado.

It’s unclear if the ordinance will find new life in other parts of Colorado. Similar language has been passed in other U.S. towns and cities, and Marcie Little of Colorado for Life told The Post last week that she expected it to be introduced elsewhere in the state.

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