Gender and Policy Conflict: Abortion and Gender Affirming Care in Colorado
Two of the most controversial and active policy conflicts in the United States are directly related to gender: abortion and gender-affirming care (GAC). Historically, abortion has been on state policy agendas for decades, but the 2022 Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned the longstanding abortion protections of Roe v. Wade, prompting an uptick of state-level abortion policy activity as advocates mobilized on both sides of the issue (Guttmacher Institute, n.d.; Roberti, 2021). Comparatively, transgender rights policy conflicts are newer on state legislative agendas, although the issue has roots in immigration, military, and welfare policy conversations (Canady, 2009). Initially excluded from policy advocacy about lesbian, gay, and bisexual issues as a strategic move (Taylor & Lewis, 2014), transgender rights became a stand-alone policy area in 2010 and, more recently, GAC access in particular emerged as a prominent topic.
Taken together, abortion and GAC policy conflicts constitute the gender policy subsystem, and strong connections can be observed between the two. Both reflect conflicts over morals, religion, and party politics. In addition, policy actors in these issue areas often join forces to collaborate and compete side-by-side: advocates tend to have similar beliefs about access to abortion and GAC and are either pro-abortion/pro-GAC or anti-abortion/anti-GAC. Ultimately, these two issue areas (and their coalitions) are bound by shared deep core beliefs and ideologies about gender, identity, equity, and bodily autonomy.
Our paper situates the gender policy subsystem within the Policy Conflict Framework (PCF), a newer development in policy process scholarship that foregrounds policy conflict as the conceptual focus (Weible and Heikkila, 2017). Other policy process theories (e.g., the Advocacy Coalition Framework, the Narrative Policy Framework, the Institutional Analysis and Development framework) also grapple with policy conflicts but keep them in the background theoretically. Previous applications of the PCF have centered on oil and gas development and policy core beliefs (Heikkila and Weible, 2017; Weible and Heikkila, 2020; You et al, 2020; You et al, 2021a; You et al, 2021b). This study is the first to tackle issues of gender identity, and it explores how ideology shapes perceptions and characteristics of policy conflict.
For this paper, we analyze the discourse of policy actors in Colorado who support and/or oppose access to abortion and GAC through a series of semi-structured interviews from February to April 2023. Although Colorado is generally supportive of access to abortion and GAC, actors on both sides are fully mobilized and actively supporting the introduction and passage of their preferred policy goals at the state legislature. In 2023 alone, at least five gender policy bills were debated in public hearings and covered a wide range of topics: misinformation (i.e., fake clinics, abortion pill reversals), protections for providers and out-of-state patients (i.e., shield legislation), and insurance coverage; all-gender bathrooms; painkiller administration for fetuses prior to abortion; and abortion abolition. Ultimately, gender policy conflicts provide a timely opportunity for researchers to advance the PCF through an analysis of the role of ideology in policy conflicts, subsystem politics, and coalition dynamics.