After the US Supreme Court sent down a huge “fuck you” to anyone with a uterus last summer, state Democrats made big promises to protect and expand abortion access in Washington. Those promises helped the party block a red wave in November and actually strengthen its majorities in the State House. Now, Democrats must deliver. And they know it.
“We’re not the majority just for bragging rights, we’re the majority so we can pass meaningful policy,” said Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-Bellevue), who is leading the charge on abortion policy.
Though Washington already boasts strong abortion protections–some of which Thai helped pass–she and other lawmakers found plenty of room for improvement.
This year, they want $15 million for abortion funding, shield laws to protect out-of-state abortion seekers, protections for sensitive health data, a law to block some religious hospital mergers, and a constitutional amendment to truly protect abortion in the state.
Though voters gave Democrats a mandate for all that, they’ll need to overcome resistance from state Republicans to push it all through. And at least one of those policies is probably dead on arrival.
At Least One Plan Is Already DOA
Governor Jay Inslee wants to amend the state Constitution to safeguard abortion against the anti-chioce whims of some future Republican trifecta–a kind of majority the GOP hasn’t seen since 1982. To protect abortion permanently, he’d need two-thirds of the State House and the Senate to approve the measure, and then he’d need a majority of Washington voters to agree with him.
Even after picking up a seat in the House and in the Senate, Democrats would still need to find five House Republicans and one-fifth of Senate Republicans to join them. That’s a tall order, and it assumes lock-step acceptance from Dems.
Inslee likely knows all of this, of course, which makes the constitutional amendment talk pure politics. But he is putting his money where his mouth is in his 2023-2025 budget proposal.
This cycle, he proposed $15 million to pay for abortion services, travel costs, and grants to public colleges that train abortion providers to meet the growing needs as more people flock to Washington for the care they cannot get in their home state.
The Northwest Abortion Access Fund (NWAAF), which helps people pay for and access abortion care, said they’re “excited to see actions like this being taken by large entities with a lot of financial backing.” However, NWAAF also said that abortion funds and other grassroots organizations still need resources to serve those who may not find government services safe or accessible.
Protect Abortion-Seekers at All Costs
As more people lose their rights in other parts of the country, advocates for reproductive freedom have warned of a flood of abortion-seekers to pro-choice states. According to NWAAF, 76% of callers seeking aid this year live outside of Washington and 40% of 2022 callers live in states with bans or restrictions on abortion.
But as Texas, Oklahoma, and Idaho begin offering incentives for civilians to sue abortion clinics, providers, and (in Texas) patients, the safety of abortion-seekers and NWAAF volunteers fell into limbo, according to NWAAF board member Miranda Vargas.
That’s where shield laws proposed by Sen. Yasmin Trudeau (D-Tacoma) and Rep. Drew Hansen (D-Bainbridge Island) come in. Those laws would require Washington courts to block subpoenas, or orders for information, from anti-choice states seeking to punish residents who travel for abortion and their providers.
“If they’re going to get aggressive and creative in enforcing their laws against abortion, we can get aggressive and creative in fighting back,” Hansen said in a phone interview.
Vargas said NWAAF would “continue to aid and abet abortion regardless” of the circumstances, but they’re also not trying to get anyone sued. The shield laws would help prevent that.
Connecticut passed a similar bill ahead of the Dobbs decision, and California followed suit in June. The Seattle City Council also voted to make Seattle a “sanctuary city,” which bars the Seattle Police Department from working with other states to enforce anti-choice laws.
Some say red states could argue that these shield laws violate the clause in the US Constitution requiring states to honor marriages and legal documents from other states. But Hansen scoffed at the argument. Unless Congress reinstates the Fugitive Slave Act, Hansen said, his bill will be just fine if it passes.
Opening Private Browser
Along the same lines, Sen. Manka Dhingra (D-Redmond) and Rep. Vandana Slatter (D-Bellevue) have introduced a bill to protect health information that is not already covered by the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). This information includes the stuff people log on period tracker apps or information pregnant people may give to fake abortion clinics.
The bill would prohibit organizations like crisis clinics from selling patient data and prohibit apps and websites from sharing data without consent.
If someone from Idaho traveled to Washington for an abortion, Dhingra explained, this law would protect health information collected in Washington state. So, if that Idaho abortion-seeker searched “abortion clinics near me” while in Spokane, Google wouldn’t be allowed to sell that data to Idaho cops. And if Google did sell that data to the cops, then the Idaho abortion-seeker could sue.
Dhingra argues that the bill would grant Washingtonians more privacy and also protect out-of-state abortion seekers whose health information might incriminate them back home.
Get Jesus Out of Washington Uteruses!
Lawmakers also want to increase abortion access by keeping the Church out of the reproductive health clinic.
When religious hospitals merge with secular ones, religious protocols allow the hospitals to limit or even deny abortion care, in spite of national or statewide protections. These religious protocols also threaten the rights recognized by Washington’s Death with Dignity Act and the Anderson Murray Anti-Discrimination Law, which protects queer and trans people in medical settings.
The ACLU of Washington has been ringing the alarm bell on this issue for years, estimating that religious-affiliated hospitals handle 40% of hospital beds in the whole state. Washingtonians go to one of these religious facilities about 30% to 37% of the time.
Last year, Rep. Tarra Simmons (D-Bremerton) introduced a bill to tackle these troublesome mergers, and she plans to reintroduce it this session. Her bill would give the Washington Attorney General the power to block hospital mergers and acquisitions if the partnership would limit access to abortion, gender-affirming care, or the right to die. The bill would not reduce the number of existing religious hospital beds or require those hospitals to perform abortions and other services, but Simmons said the bill would stop further damage.
Simmons’s bill didn’t even get a committee hearing that year. At the time, only seven other Democrats signed onto the legislation. But with a reinvigorated interest in protecting reproductive rights–and with the Governor’s stamp of approval–Simmons believes the bill will likely gain more traction this year.
A few Republicans file anti-abortion bills every session, but they never even get a hearing.
Still, Democrats can expect an earful–and perhaps some time-wasting amendments–from staunch pro-lifers. Sen. Phil Fortunato, one of the state’s most extreme anti-choice lawmakers, accused the Democrats of trying to install a fascist regime, infringing on the religious freedoms of hospitals, legislating hypocritically by not also taking a pro-choice stance on gun rights, and, finally, attempting to make Washington an “abortion destination”–all in a 20-minute phone call.
“Don’t come to Washington to see our mountains and our lakes and our beautiful Puget Sound. No, come to Washington to kill your baby,” he said, mocking the shield law proposal.
Senate Minority Leader Sen. John Braun didn’t respond to a request for comment, but he told KING 5 that Republicans would not seek to overturn the will of voters, who supported abortion on the ballot in 1970 and 1991.
In an email, House Republican Leader J.T. Wlicox wrote that it would “not be prudent to comment definitively” on behalf of the House Republicans until after they discuss “principles and priorities.”
As for challenges within the pro-choice party, Rep. Thai said she would be foolish to say every Democrat will jump on board with every new abortion policy, no questions asked. Someone will likely have a problem with some aspect of some bill, but she hopes those disagreements lead to better policy.
Dhingra said she’s hopeful, too. Given the level of coordination between House and Senate lawmakers, the Governor’s office, the Department of Health, and the Office of Insurance since the Dobbs decision, Dhingra said she’s confident that the Democrats will hunker down and deliver.