It hasn’t been such a good summer for reproductive rights. Anti-choice lawmakers have continued their assault on abortion access specifically by targeting the medical facilities that provide that type of care, forcing clinics to close their doors. But at least one state is taking the opposite approach.
Washington State, which has long been a pioneer in reproductive rights — voters decided to make abortion a “statutory right” in 1970 — is currently working to ensure that women will be able to access abortion care at public hospitals. On Wednesday, the state’s attorney general released an opinion emphasizing that any public health district in the state that offers maternity care must also provide contraception and abortion services.
“I fully expect all public hospital districts to comply with this opinion,” Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) said at a news conference this week.
The state official’s guidance comes in response to a growing clash brewing between the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and the state’s progressive abortion law. Under a measure adopted in 1991, Washington residents all have a “fundamental right to choose or refuse” contraception or abortion, and the state isn’t allowed to use the “regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services or information” to prevent anyone from exercising those rights. That’s why public hospitals that are in the practice of delivering babies must also be able to provide women with birth control and abortion services. But the state also has a large network of private Catholic hospitals that don’t provide abortion care and have some restrictions on contraception — and those private hospitals are beginning to merge to absorb non-religious hospitals. These types of mergers often end up halting abortion care.
That’s significantly changing the medical landscape in the left-leaning state. Small, local hospitals are increasingly partnering with larger Catholic health associations — and some public hospital districts in Washington now contract solely with Catholic-affiliated hospitals. Lawmakers started wondering if those public hospital districts were considered to be breaking the the state law about abortion services, or if contracting with Catholic hospitals was allowing them to exploit a loophole that would narrow women’s access to reproductive health care.
Ferguson’s opinion reaffirms the fact that public hospitals don’t get a pass on this issue. They have to provide the full range of reproductive services, and their partnerships with Catholic-affiliated groups don’t exempt them from that requirement.
Women’s health advocates in the state applauded the attorney general’s commitment to abortion access. “Medical decisions are best made between a woman and her doctor,” a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest said in a statement. “Today’s opinion ensures that in Washington’s public hospitals, women are entitled to receive the care they need, without interference by religious doctrine.”
The Catholic Church operates more than 600 hospitals across the country under the Catholic Health Association (CHA). The CHA estimates that about one in six patients in the U.S. receives their medical care at a Catholic hospital. Because Catholic-affiliated institutions must adhere to the Church’s strict pro-life teachings, reproductive rights advocates warn that the growing network of religious providers could represent the next serious barrier to women’s abortion access.