People cheer Jan. 24 during an abortion rights rally at the State Capitol in Olympia. (Karen Ducey / The Seattle Times via AP)

People cheer Jan. 24 during an abortion rights rally at the State Capitol in Olympia. (Karen Ducey / The Seattle Times via AP)

State abortion laws are strong; Democrats want to make them stronger

A suite of legislation aims to make Washington a haven for those seeking and providing reproductive health services.

OLYMPIA — A day after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last June, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and Democratic lawmakers responded with a call to chisel abortion rights protection into Washington’s state’s constitution.

A constitutional amendment would become the centerpiece of a suite of legislative proposals to solidify the right to choice in Washington, buffering the state’s long-established access to reproductive care from political and legal attacks.

“There is a desire for us to become a haven for those who come into our state seeking medical care, to protect our doctors who provide service and to make sure they are not punished, and to make sure we have the strongest protections possible for women’s reproductive services,” said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo and chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

Republicans argue it’s an unnecessary conversation. Voter-passed initiatives coupled with laws passed in recent sessions have given Washington some of the nation’s strongest protections. Democrats counter the situation can change quickly. They note former President Donald Trump reshaped the U.S. Supreme Court with his appointees and it resulted in repeal of federal protections after 50 years.

An exchange between Republican Sen. Ann Rivers of Vancouver and Inslee at a Jan. 24 hearing on the constitutional amendment captured the essence of the disagreement.

“Political theater aside,” Rivers began, “I don’t know any world in which Washington state changes course on this issue so I would hope that we could all stop the fearmongering of women losing the right to choose and move on to issues more pressing to the state like making sure people have adequate health care coverage.”

Inslee paused a moment before responding.

“I am trying to say this in a respectful way,” he said. “What world are you living in? There is a party in our state that wakes up every single morning trying to take away this right from women and in multiple states they have done so effectively.”

Senate Joint Resolution 8202, the constitutional amendment, is the most ambitious of the legislative initiatives. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate don’t expect it to pass because it requires support from a two-thirds majority in each chamber to get on the ballot this November. No Republican has publicly voiced support.

Another five bills are moving through one chamber or the other.

Two are on the floor calendar in the House, meaning they can be brought up for a vote on day representatives are in session.

House Bill 1469 is one. It’s intended to limit cooperation with other states’ investigations or warrants concerning provision of abortion and gender affirming care services.

As written, the state Attorney General’s Office would keep a list of laws of other states that make it a crime to provide or receive protected health care services and make the list available to the Washington State Patrol. The bill also requires the state patrol to determine if an out-of-state warrant is for the arrest of a person in connection with protected health care services such as an abortion. If so, it must be removed from the system or be marked as unenforceable.

“If other states wish to be creative and aggressive in restricting abortion rights, we in Washington can be creative and aggressive in (pushing) back,” said Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, chair of the House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee which considered the bill. “We will not allow our laws and rules to be used to enforce other states’ laws.”

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs opposed the bill due to a requirement law enforcement officers not serve warrants of other states. A murder warrant could be for someone who carried out an abortion. It also could be for someone who carried out a mass shooting. Officers don’t typically know the specifics for the warrant.

“Do not place Washington State law enforcement agencies in the middle of the abortion debate,” said James McMahan, the association’s policy director said in a hearing.

House Bill 1155 could get a vote soon as well. It deals broadly with data privacy, including keeping private information of patients seeking reproductive services.

On Monday, the Senate Ways and Means Committee is expected to vote on Senate Bill 5242, which would limit out-of-pocket costs for patients.

State law requires health insurance companies cover abortion if they cover maternity care. This bill would bar a health carrier from imposing cost sharing for the procedure. It would apply to health plans issued or renewed on or after Jan. 1, 2024, including health plans offered to public employees.

Senate Bill 5241, which awaits a hearing in the same committee, would bar any hospital merger or acquisition “if it would detrimentally affect the continued existence of accessible, affordable health care in Washington State for at least ten years after the transaction occurs.”

The bill directs the Attorney General’s Office to monitor any transaction involving a hospital for at least 10 years to ensure compliance with all requirements. If needed, the attorney general could impose conditions or modifications on the deal.

A sixth piece of legislation, House Bill 1340, is in the Rules Committee, one step from the floor.

It makes clear health providers cannot be disciplined or have their license denied for “unprofessional conduct” for providing reproductive health services or gender affirming care as allowed in state law.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, sponsored the bill. Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, authored an identical bill in the Senate.

“We must do whatever it takes to protect reproductive rights in our state starting by protecting those that provide access to reproductive health care,” Salomon said in a release. “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s radical decision to take away reproductive freedom to result in retaliation against essential workers who provide critical healthcare.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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