In response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed two additional layers of local protections for people seeking abortion. Though some right-wing commentators characterized the new protections as a desperate attempt from Seattle activists to stay relevant in the post-Roe outrage, the bill’s sponsors, Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Lisa Herbold, argued that adding the local measures on top of Washington state laws protecting the right to an abortion made sense given the uncertainty of the current moment.
“We don't know what's going to happen. And I think the point is really to make sure that we are codifying for the City the protections that we want for people who are trying to access care,” Morales said in a phone interview.
The first of the two bills the council passed on Tuesday prohibits discrimination against anyone in Seattle based on real or perceived pregnancy outcomes.
Morales said she’s not sure if that kind of discrimination was a widespread problem, but with abortion care advocates warning of more pregnant people coming to Seattle for the procedure, the conditions for it were ripe.
In this way, the bill takes a proactive approach. Instead of waiting for a hotel to turn away a pregnant Idahoan who wants to pay for a room after receiving care in Seattle, or instead of waiting for an employer to fire someone who tweeted about their abortion, the City will just go ahead and make such actions illegal.
The second of the two bills gives the City the power to charge anyone who impedes access to or disrupts the operations of health care facilities, including those that perform procedures to end pregnancy.
Engaging in that kind of disruptive behavior is already illegal under state law, so, practically, the council’s law doesn’t change much. It’s like adding an additional city-level murder charge, even though the state already enforces the law about not murdering people.
But redundancy isn’t always a bad thing. While Morales doesn’t expect the State Legislature to pass laws restricting abortions any time soon, if for some reason a red wave washes over Washington and then Republican majorities do go after the procedure, the City measures will still protect Seattleites.
Similarly, Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s abortion sanctuary bill also doubled up on existing protections. Though the Governor and the Mayor both instructed their respective police departments not to assist cops from other states in their efforts to enforce abortion criminalization, Sawant’s bill prevents changes in leadership from changing those directives.
However, Morales’s and Herbold’s health facility bill makes an actual change by allowing the City Attorney to prosecute that particular crime. That’s right, if you try to block the doorway at Planned Parenthood, then you will be City Attorney Ann Davison’s problem.
In a committee meeting last month, Sawant asked if this expansion of power would make a “substantive difference” in how law enforcement addresses these crimes. Central staff clarified that the bill would not take away power from the King County Court, but if that court for some reason got bogged down with other cases, then the City could prosecute.
In a statement, City Attorney spokesman Anthony Derrick warned that the law could add to the backlog that built up during pandemic court closures and also contribute to the "ongoing staffing crisis at the Seattle Police Department."
Neither of those warnings appear to hold much weight. A spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office (KCPAO) said that these cases do not get pushed to the back burner, and the office rarely sees them anyway. The spokesperson couldn’t recall one in recent history.
The same goes for arrests. Based on a quick search, the Seattle Police Department said that the cops only investigated about two dozen cases since 2015 that violated the RCW that the council’s bill copies. However, cops flagged many of those arrests as general hospital disturbances unrelated to abortion.
The prevalence of more extreme attempts to interfere with abortion access may partially explain the few instances of these cases. For example, burning down a Planned Parenthood would register as a different crime than impeding the operations of a health care facility, even though the fire certainly wouldn't help.
Regardless of how often people are currently camping outside of clinics to stop abortions, Herbold said the bill clarifies the City’s stance in the event of Seattle becoming more hostile to pregnant people post-Roe.
“It's prospective of what could happen in a new climate where people are, unfortunately, more determined and more emboldened to deprive them of their rights to comprehensive health care,” Herbold said in a phone interview.
The council will continue to work on abortion protections, including a bill to protect health data and prevent harmful misinformation from crisis pregnancy clinics.