The U.S. Senate race between Colorado state Rep. Ron Hanks (R-Cañon City) and businessman Joe O’Dea is highlighting a growing divide amongst Republicans on the subject of abortion. The debate over how extreme GOP politicians should be on abortion has not just affected Colorado’s Senate race, but was also front and center in Louisiana, where earlier this month House Bill 813, a near duplicate of Rep. Dave Williams’s (R-CO Springs) failed personhood bill, was blocked not by pro-abortion Democrats, but by Republicans and anti-abortion groups that felt it went too far.

O’Dea, who has repeatedly tried to steer his campaign away from what he calls “social issues,” has criticized Colorado’s Reproductive Health Equity Act, which enshrines access to abortion in Colorado law, but has also said he wouldn’t vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Hanks has seized on O’Dea’s moderate — by anti-abortion standards — position, attacking him in a recent news release, at last Saturday’s Colorado Republican Rumble. Hanks’ campaign followed up that event by releasing a video clip of their candidate attacking his opponent on the issue.

Most recently, the pair traded rhetorical blows on Dan Caplis’s radio show.

O’Dea again clarified his position on abortion on the May 24 episode of Caplis’s show. He said he opposed the Women’s Health Protection Act, the federal abortion bill that recently failed to advance in the Senate. “I’m running to take the fight to Joe Biden and Michael Bennet on inflation, the cost of living, $4.00 dollar gas, and I haven’t been running my campaign centered on social issues, but let me answer your question,” he said. “I don’t support late-term abortion, there should be limits on late-term abortion. I’m opposed to taxpayer funding for abortion. Colorado has a parental notification requirements for minors. I support that law. Parents have an absolute right to know. I do not support the bill that Chuck Schumer brought to the Senate floor last week. That bill goes way further than Roe or Casey.”

The phrase “late-term abortions” are a common talking point among abortion opponents. However, abortions in the third trimester of pregnancy account for 1% of all abortions in the United States. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “These abortions receive a disproportionate amount of attention in the news, policy and the law, and discussions on this topic are often fraught with misinformation; for example, intense public discussions have been sparked after several policymakers have theorized about abortions occurring ‘moments before birth’ or even ‘after birth.’ In reality, these scenarios do not occur, nor are they legal, in the U.S. Discussion of this topic is further obscured due to the terms sometimes used to describe abortions later in pregnancy– including ‘late-term,’ ‘post-viability,’ ‘partial birth,’ ‘dismemberment’ and ‘born-alive’ abortions—despite many medical professionals criticizing and opposing their use.”

O’Dea outlined his specific opposition to the Women’s Health Protection Act. “Schumer’s bill literally overrules Colorado’s parental notification requirements, and I think that’s reckless. Schumer’s bill also would have required Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, no organization should ever be required to perform a procedure that they do not believe in. And Schumer’s bill expanded the right to a late term abortion. And so for all those reasons, I’m absolutely a ‘no’ on Schumer’s bill. So I would not vote for a bill that expands Roe [or] Casey, but yes, I would vote for a bill that protects a woman’s right to choose early in the pregnancy. I’d also protect that right in cases of rape, incest and medical necessity. I don’t support a total ban. But that bill would also need limits on late-term abortion, it would need to include a parental notification requirements for minors, it would need to prohibit any taxpayer funding for abortion. The bill would need clear protection for hospitals of faith. So they wouldn’t be required to perform the procedure that they do not believe in. Some of those things Roe and Casey allow, some of those things Roe and Casey require. And then that’s what I believe.” 

Hanks later called in to speak with Caplis about O’Dea’s statements, and was quick to note how at-odds O’Dea is with a broad section of the Republican base. “I was part of the fight against that miserable bill [RHEA] in the State House,” he said. “In fact, it was the longest fight in Colorado history. That is a bad bill- it passed anyway. But we fought for over 24 hours to push back against what we think is truly abominable legislation. And truth to tell, my opponent in this race [O’Dea] has positioned himself further left than any current US senator. I mean, even Romney, Collins and Murkowski did not vote to codify Roe v. Wade. So this is significant. I’m grateful for the chance to build this distinction here. It’s important for the voters of Colorado

Caplis, an ardent opponent of abortion, said after O’Dea’s appearance on his show, “Listen, this does make me very sad. And I’ve never even met the guy. It just makes me very sad because somebody I had viewed as a very strong and credible GOP candidate is now somebody I cannot vote for. That makes me sad. It also makes me sad that the chances of Michael Bennet getting reelected, in my view, just went way up. And if I’m wrong about that, that makes me sad in another sense. And obviously, I want the GOP to control the Senate. I want everything that comes with that. But the GOP as awful as it would be, we can afford to lose a Senate seat in Colorado again, what we cannot afford to lose, is what it means to be pro-life. What we cannot afford to lose is the GOP identity as the pro-life party, because we might pick off a Senate seat somewhere.”

Rep. Dave Williams (R-CO Springs) during a “Rally to Resist Roe,” which featured Jeff Durbin of End Abortion Now.

In Louisiana, Rep. Danny McCormick (R-Oil City), introduced Louisiana House Bill 813, which aimed to abolish abortion in Louisiana. McCormick’s bill has almost the identical language used in Williams’ failed Colorado House Bill 1079, including the impeachment of judges who refuse to “enforce homicide and assault provisions” on abortion patients.

Williams’s bill was supported by the anti-abortion group End Abortion Now. Its founder, Jeff Durbin, testified in support of Williams’s bill during a twelve-hour meeting of the Colorado House’s Health and Insurance Committee. Durbin said in 2017, “Whether it’s a mother who kills her child in the womb or a mother who kills her five-year-old twins by drowning them in the bathtub, we would want it to be treated as a murder charge, and for that to be applied consistently under the law.”

Zach Connover, the director of communications for End Abortion Now, said both Louisiana’s HB813 and Colorado’s HB1079 are from his organization. According to Connover, End Abortion Now is a coalition of “about 800 churches” that is working to, as their name suggests, end abortion. “The ministry initially began out of Arizona as a result of just our local church, the local church I’m a part of, our work, going, weekly, to the clinics to offer help to the moms, abortion-minded moms, who were going in,” he said. “We offer them help. We share the truth about abortion. We share Christ with them. It just came as a result of, honestly, God saving all these children from death.”

Working with legislators to craft anti-abortion legislation is part of End Abortion Now’s activities. “The kind of work we do, which is taking the truth about abortion, the Gospel, into a variety of settings,” said Connover. “Whether that’s equipping Christians to go to their local abortion clinic and offer help and preach the good news there, or whether it’s to send Christians to their legislators and tell them what God requires on this issue there, that’s how we operate.”

In Colorado, despite hours of testimony, Williams’ bill was defeated in committee. McCormick’s bill made it to the Louisiana House, where it faced opposition from a variety of sources.

Louisiana’s governor, anti-abortion Democrat John Bel Edwards, who signed a six-week abortion ban into law in 2019, spoke out against McCormick’s bill. “My Catholic Christian faith teaches me to be pro-life, which is something I’ve been honest and upfront about with the people of Louisiana, who I believe mostly agree with me,” he said in a news release. “But House Bill 813 is not a pro-life bill. In addition to the fact that this legislation is patently unconstitutional, this bill would criminalize the use of certain types of contraception, as well as parts of the in vitro fertilization process, and it could even serve as a barrier to life-saving medical treatment for a woman who is suffering a miscarriage. To suggest that a woman would be jailed for an abortion is simply absurd. This legislation is radical and it goes far beyond simply being pro-life. I do not normally comment on these types of bills before they’ve made it through the legislative process, but I felt I had to join my voice to the chorus of pro-life organizations against HB 813. Working together, we can create a Louisiana that values life and supports women, children and families. House Bill 813’s proposals are not the way to do that here or anywhere else.”

The bill also inspired an open letter, signed by 76 different anti-abortion organizations, including National Right to Life, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and others, that opposed House BIll 813 and similar legislation that would criminalize abortion patients. “In fighting for our country’s future generations, we are called to act with love and compassion as we seek fairness, justice, and liberty for unborn children and their mothers,” read the letter. “Criminalizing women is antithetical to this charge. We will continue to oppose legislative and policy initiatives that criminalize women who seek abortions, and we will continue to work for initiatives that protect unborn children and policies that provide and strengthen life-affirming resources for abortion-vulnerable women. We call upon all pro-life legislators to stand with us. We ask you to continue to act with love and compassion toward abortion-vulnerable women. We urge you to reject any measure that seeks to criminalize women who have abortions.”

Connover says End Abortion Now’s legislation doesn’t define the penalty, it simply allows fetuses to be granted the same rights as human beings. “This legislation, and bills like it that we have submitted, do not establish penalties,” he said. “The bill itself simply removes a discriminatory exception. For example, in Louisiana, mothers have the legal right, no matter how regulated it has been, to kill their baby by abortion, and they have protection to do that. What this kind of bill does is remove that exception and say preborn children need to possess that same protections under law that everybody else has. Whoever is responsible for the crime of killing the baby, whether mother, abortionist, father, pimp, sex trafficker, whatever the case may be — obviously there’s elements in there — this bill simply removes the discrimination and removes the exceptions for that to say, ‘everybody is under the same standard.’ Everybody is under the same system of justice, and all of these matters must be adjudicated through the legal system, just like any other crime of murder would be. The bill itself doesn’t establish those penalties, it simply says that everyone is under the law.”

McCormick ultimately withdrew his legislation when the Louisiana house voted to amend the bill.

In Colorado, despite O’Dea’s best efforts, Hanks is trying to make the Senate race a kind of Republican referendum on abortion, in a state where access to abortion is overwhelmingly popular. Not only did Colorado legislators pass RHEA, a groundbreaking piece of legislation enshrining abortion access under Colorado law, but attempts at ballot initiatives to restrict abortion access have consistently been voted down. According to the Pew Research Center, “more Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances (61%) than illegal in all or most circumstances (37%).”