OLYMPIA – Public hospitals that provide maternity services must also provide access to contraception and abortion, even if they contract with a private company that bars such services, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday.
In a formal attorney general’s opinion, Ferguson said state law, approved by voters in 1991, requires that a public hospital offer “substantially equivalent” abortion and contraceptive services if they provide maternity care.
Private hospitals, including those run by the Catholic Church, which has religious objections to contraception and abortion, have no such obligation, he said.
While private hospitals dominate Washington’s major cities, many rural areas have established public hospital districts, which elect board members and levy taxes to help cover some of the costs of medical care. Most Eastern Washington counties, including Pend Oreille, Ferry, Lincoln, Adams and Whitman, have one or more hospital districts.
Ferguson said he didn’t know of any district that currently violates the law. His office was asked for the opinion by a Puget Sound legislator because the San Juan Hospital District has an agreement with PeaceHealth, a Catholic health care corporation, to build and operate a new hospital, providing only the services within its religious doctrine.
The issue is also being raised around the state with mergers and acquisitions of health care facilities. Along with abortion and contraception, some groups have raised questions about access for gay and lesbian couples and assisted suicide, which is legal in Washington state but is forbidden by some Christian faiths.
In a letter earlier this summer to the American Civil Liberties Union, Gov. Jay Inslee said his staff was “closely examining a number of scenarios that may put at risk certain access to care rights and give rise to difficult legal issues.”