OLYMPIA – Demonstrators gathered on the Capitol steps demanding expanded abortion access as lawmakers met Tuesday to hear a number of bills on reproductive health.
The rally, organized by Pro Choice Washington, drew over 60 people who held signs and chanted, with music loudly playing from speakers.
Just before legislators were scheduled to speak, a single-file line of anti-abortion demonstrators from Tiny Heartbeat Ministries marched onto the lawn facing the Capitol steps in counterprotest. They held large signs, graphic in nature, allegedly depicting aborted fetuses, though they refused to disclose the source of these images.
On the Capitol steps, several legislators addressed demonstrators, including House Speaker Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, and Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
“While we should be here right now celebrating the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we are instead here right now mourning the U.S. Supreme Court taking away for the first time in history a constitutional right,” Jinkins said. “Let me tell you, I’m mad as hell about this.”
Following the Dobbs v. Jackson decision last summer, the country is moving into a post-Roe world. For many Washington legislators, that means protecting the right to an abortion in the state.
One way to do that is through a proposal from Gov. Jay Inslee that would enshrine the right in the state constitution, but it’s not likely to have enough support to pass this session.
“We cannot be lulled into thinking that this is something that is a past debate,” Inslee told the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee on Tuesday.
Before heading to voters for final approval, a constitutional amendment would require votes from two-thirds of the state Senate and House, which would require some Republican support. Republicans have indicated they wouldn’t support the measure.
During testimony, Inslee received pushback from Republicans on the panel, including Sens. Ann Rivers, of La Center, and Mike Padden, of Spokane. Rivers said the law is settled and she doesn’t see “any world in which Washington changes course on this issue.”
“I would hope that we could stop the fear-mongering of women losing the right to choose and move onto issues that are more pressing in the state,” she said.
Inslee pushed back on the idea the law wouldn’t change, especially if the makeup of the Legislature or the governor changes.
“It cannot be left to the whims of who happens to sit on the bench or who happens to sit in the Legislature,” he added.
The controversial bill brought split testimony from abortion advocates who say it is needed to ensure Washington residents have access to abortion in the future, and from those against abortion who say it is heading in the wrong direction.
“Washington does not have to be a pro-choice state forever into the future,” Kathryn Amdahl, of the Eastern Washington University Students for Life, said. “It can change.”
Despite Inslee’s push, lawmakers have said they don’t imagine the bill will pass both chambers.
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said the bill will likely make it out of committee, but it’s “highly unlikely” to pass a vote in the full Senate chamber based on prior votes and public statements from the Republican party.
Although legislators may not pass a constitutional amendment this session, they are working on expanding access and protections for patients and providers in Washington. Those bills would not require two-thirds vote and likely have enough Democratic support to pass.
One bill heard Tuesday would prohibit cost-sharing, such as a co-payment or deductible, for the coverage of abortion services. For plans issued or renewed on or after Jan. 1, 2024, including those offered to public employees, a health carrier may not impose cost-sharing for abortion of a pregnancy, according to the bill.
Another bill would protect people in Washington who receive or provide abortion care from being prosecuted in another state. It would prohibit out-of-state subpoenas seeking information and out-of-state criminal investigations and arrests related to reproductive health services. It would also prohibit the governor from extraditing people for out-of-state charges, and it would protect health care providers from harassment related to reproductive health care services.
In Tuesday’s testimony, James McMahan, policy director of the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said this bill would overly complicate the jobs of police officers.
“Requiring affirmative conditions in the civil and criminal enforcement of Washington laws specific to the laws of another state that aren’t being enforced creates unnecessary challenges, complexities and jeopardizes justice in the enforcement of Washington’s laws,” McMahan said.
Lawmakers are also looking at protecting patient health data.
The My Health, My Data Act would require third-party services, such as apps that track menstrual cycles, to publish policies surrounding health data collection and sharing, and require them to obtain consumers’ consent prior to any data collection or sharing. It would prohibit both the sale of this data and the use of geofencing, a type of location-based advertising, surrounding health care facilities.
While the bill applies to health data protection generally, supporters emphasized the importance of data collection in regard to reproductive health and gender care. According to testimony, people seeking abortions are often the target of anti-abortion messaging and advertisements on their cell phones when they are within the vicinity of an abortion provider, made possible by geofencing.
“Isn’t it enough that our patients have to navigate dealing with protesters and fake clinics?” said Anuj Khattar, medical director at abortion clinic Cedar River Clinics. “They shouldn’t have to deal with antitrust harassment on their phones and through technology.”
Opponents expressed concerns that the language in the bill would cause it to overstep the intentions, and it could be applied to other types of data, like everyday purchases of toilet paper or shoes, for example.
Along with shielding providers from criminal prosecution from other states, another proposal would protect providers’ licenses.
Providers who perform any reproductive health services or gender-affirming care in another state where it is illegal would not be punished in Washington when trying to obtain a license to practice.
Riccelli, the bill sponsor, said it would ensure providers’ licenses are not at risk if they perform such procedures in another state.
Another bill aims to preserve community access to comprehensive reproductive medical care by regulating hospital and health system mergers. It would modify reporting requirements for mergers, acquisitions or contracting affiliations between hospitals, hospital systems or provider organizations.
It would require them to submit documents related to access to care, including emergency, primary, reproductive, gender-affirming or end-of-life care, and how any of those areas would be affected by a proposed transaction. The attorney general would determine whether the transaction would detrimentally affect access to accessible, affordable health care and monitor it for at least 10 years.
A public hearing on the bill had split testimony. Supporters said the bill would create much-needed oversight and protect access to reproductive health care. Opponents, including hospital systems and the state hospital association, said the bill could slow down much-needed mergers and lead to hospitals closing.
The 105-day legislative session ends April 23.
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