CV NEWS FEED // Bella Health & Wellness is suing to block enforcement of a Colorado law targeting pro-life caregivers, and state officials are offering an unusual defense: they don’t actually intend to enforce the law against Bella, at least for now.
“We filed a brief explaining all the ways the law is unconstitutional. And they filed a brief that said: ‘Okay, I won’t enforce it, give me more time,’” attorney Mark Rienzi told reporters after an April 24 hearing at Denver’s federal courthouse. “But they don’t actually defend it, because the truth is there’s no very good defense for what Colorado did here.”
Colorado recently passed Senate Bill 23-190, which outlaws Bella Health’s practice of providing natural hormone treatment to reverse an incomplete medication abortion. The new law describes abortion-pill reversal treatment as a “deceptive” and “unprofessional” practice, and spells out penalties for clinics that offer it.
Rienzi, one of the Becket Fund lawyers representing Bella Health, said Colorado’s extreme and unprecedented law has put the state’s own officials and lawyers in a tough position.
“Colorado made itself an outlier. There is no jurisdiction in the country where it’s illegal to help women like this, except Colorado,” Rienzi observed after Monday’s hearing, which was attended by CatholicVote. “That’s shameful and outrageous. And I don’t blame the lawyers for not wanting to defend it.”
Arguing before Judge Daniel Domenico in Monday’s hearing, Bella’s lawyers squarely denounced S.B. 23-190 for violating their clients’ religious liberty and free speech rights. Bella co-founder and CEO Dede Chism testified she now fears prosecution for practicing her Catholic faith and aiding the vulnerable.
State officials, in contrast, offered a more limited and highly technical defense of the law.
“I think the government would rather not defend [S.B. 23-190] right now, which is why they’re trying to get out of the case with their promises of non-enforcement,” Rienzi commented after the hearing.
Rather than directly defending S.B. 23-190 as constitutional, Colorado’s lawyers argue that it does not currently subject abortion reversal providers to any penalties—making it improper, they say, to decide the issues raised by Bella Health at this time. State officials say they will refrain from enforcing the new law against providers of abortion-pill reversal, at least until an unusual provision of the law is clarified by rulemaking later this year.
Although S.B. 23-190 describes abortion-pill reversal as illegal conduct and provides for penalties, the law also provides a possible scenario in which the practice might be allowed. If three state medical boards unanimously agree—contrary to the legislature’s statements—that abortion reversal is a “generally accepted standard of practice,” the penalties specified in a portion of S.B. 23-190 will not apply. The three medical boards must complete their rulemaking on this issue by October 2023.
Testifying on Monday, Colorado officials said they would not enforce S.B. 23-190 against abortion-pill reversal providers like Bella until that rulemaking—which could hypothetically reverse the legislature’s move—is complete.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mark Rienzi said this “unorthodox” rulemaking provision was a way for the legislature to “shoot first and ask questions later” on abortion-pill reversal.
“The legislature already outlawed it,” Rienzi told CatholicVote. “The legislature made it ‘unprofessional conduct.’ Theoretically, the medical boards can try to walk that back in six months. But right now, it’s ‘unprofessional conduct’ under Colorado law.”
A temporary restraining order, preventing Colorado from enforcing S.B. 23-190 against Bella, is due to expire before the end of April. At the end of Monday’s hearing, Judge Domenico said he expects to issue a further ruling in the case within the week, while the temporary order was still in effect.
Lawyers for the state maintain there is no need for the stronger legal remedy of a preliminary injunction—possibly blocking the law more broadly—because Bella currently faces no real threat of enforcement from Colorado officials.
But Bella Health and the Becket legal team aren’t reassured by these statements.
“The government has offered partial, time-limited, conditional promises of non-enforcement, but that’s not enough protection,” Rienzi told CatholicVote. “We’d like an order from the court saying that we’re protected.”
“The legislature tried to make my client’s medical practice—of caring for women who have changed their mind about abortion—illegal. We want an order from the court protecting her ability to help women who ask for her help, and give them good medical care.”