Activist Gina Millan’s weekly, hour-long radio show, “Mujeres de Color” — Spanish for “Women of Color” — is known for tackling topics including reproductive justice and the rights of women, LGBTQ people and immigrants.
It’s also known for drawing the ire of men opposed to reproductive rights — and the support of women who are thankful to her for speaking up.
“When we speak about abortion … I receive calls or threats. People feel offended; people take it very personally,” said Millan, who works as a community organizer with the Colorado Organization for Latina Opportunity and Reproductive Rights, known as COLOR.
Millan hopes the negative calls will lessen as the result of a new Colorado law, signed by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis on July 6, that will provide undocumented people in the state with free birth control. As the Denver Post reports, the fund will apply to women who would otherwise qualify for Medicaid.
The law — which will take effect in January — is only the third state program in the country that allocates funds to make contraception and contraceptive counseling services available to state residents regardless of citizenship or immigration status. Oregon passed a similar law targeted toward undocumented immigrants in 2017, with Washington state following suit two years later.
Some disagree with the new law. The Colorado Catholic Conference, for example, opposes the law because of the church’s views on birth control, the Sentinel Colorado reported in May. Republican state Rep. Mark Baisley opposed the bill at that time as well, saying that constituents shouldn’t have to pay for it.
“The money to pay for such things doesn’t just come from the state. It doesn’t just come from government. It comes from the people who are taxed to pay for that,” he told the Sentinel Colorado.
Now, with a surge in antiabortion legislation and the Supreme Court reviewing a Mississippi law that would ban almost all abortions after 15 weeks, Colorado’s law is an example of how other states across the country could expand abortion access, according to Elizabeth Nash, lead state policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research center that supports abortion rights.
“I’m hoping this Colorado program is a steppingstone, and that we’ll see other states look to Colorado now for inspiration,” Nash said.
COLOR, the organization where Millan works, was crucial to passing the Colorado bill, which was co-sponsored by state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis (D), who also works as a pharmacist, and state Rep. Yadira Caraveo (D), who works as a pediatrician.
The bill notes that 27 percent of Latinx people in Colorado are uninsured — making them the state’s highest uninsured population — and that 38 percent of Latinas nationally are uninsured and a quarter live in poverty. Without insurance, birth control pills can cost up to $600 per year, with implants costing more than $800 and intrauterine devices costing more than $1,000, according to the National Women’s Health Network.
Undocumented and immigrant people face myriad structural barriers to accessing contraception and reproductive care compared with U.S.-born people, according to advocates; as a result, 71 percent reported having no health insurance coverage in 2011, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“You’re talking about a group that has extremely limited access to health care, and faces a number of challenges because of their undocumented status and potentially language issues, too,” Nash, of the Guttmacher Institute, said. “Setting up this program, it’s very explicit in the sense that it says, ‘You matter, and we are going to do our best to make sure you can access the care you need, when you need it, in a culturally respectful way.’”
Millan has seen the challenges facing undocumented people in Colorado seeking birth control — and their impacts — firsthand. One woman, who was in her early 30s and a mother to six children when Millan met her, stands out in her memory.
“I asked her, ‘You love children?’ And she said, ‘No,’ and started crying,” Millan said.
The woman knew about clinics and birth control options available to her, but said that the men in her life were preventing her from accessing it. According to Millan, the woman told her, “If my husband doesn’t kill me, my father will” — referencing how they felt about contraception.
In Millan’s experience, men often stand in the way of women accessing birth control, because of a combination of religious factors that may reject it and what Millan calls “machismo” — a cultural concept of masculinity that Millan said is common within Latinx communities.
“The cultural stigma in Latinx communities is that the woman’s body is not necessarily her own,” said Aurea Bolaños Perea, COLOR’s communications and policy manager.
This can create a sense of fear in people seeking access to birth control, according to Millan, calling that fear the “biggest obstacle” within the communities she serves. She and Bolaños Perea think the law will help turn the tide but added that this ingrained patriarchy is a problem that goes beyond any laws or legislation.
“Machismo is one of these sociocultural factors that we have to unpack and unlearn,” Bolaños Perea said.
The pandemic also brought an increase in both domestic violence and an estimated 1.4 million unintended pregnancies around the world, according to the United Nations Population Fund. Unintended pregnancies bring a slate of health and interpersonal complications for both the person who gives birth and the baby, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including increased likelihood of mental health problems, less stable romantic relationships, and higher rates of physical abuse.
Going forward, helping undocumented Coloradans access educational resources about contraception and understand their right to control their own reproduction is crucial, Millan and Bolaños Perea said. So is educating Coloradans about the new law beyond Denver and other cities, where “there’s not really going to be a problem with folks knowing about this,” Bolaños Perea said.
“It’s in the rural areas, and in these deserts of access to these resources,” where there will be more of an imperative to spread the word, she added.
To do so, Millan said she plans to head out to those parts of the state to hold workshops in schools and meet with community leaders to teach them about the new law. Doing so, according to Bolaños Perea, is crucial to reducing the disparities in access to birth control that made the new law necessary in the first place: “While reproductive health care is accessible … it isn’t affordable or available for everybody.”