Health Care

5 abortion bills on docket in agenda-setting day of hearings in Washington State

Democrats want to make it clear that abortion rights are a top priority for the party.
People demonstrating in favor of abortion rights gather during an evening rally, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington State lawmakers are set to consider a raft of abortion-protection measures Tuesday in what Democrats in control of the state government are promoting as a display of unity at the outset of the first legislative session since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

Hearings on five bills that make up the bulk of state Democrats’ abortion agenda for the 2023 session are scheduled to occupy three House and three Senate committees for most of the morning, with marquee testimony from Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in support of a measure that would amend the state constitution to protect reproductive freedoms, including the right to have an abortion and use contraception.

“It’s really meant to just make clear, without a shadow of a doubt, what a top priority this is for the governor and the Senate and the House Democrats in the state of Washington,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland (D), who chairs the Senate Health and Long Term Care Committee.

Cleveland and other state Democrats said it is rare for so many committees in both chambers to coordinate simultaneous hearings on a single issue.

The events in Washington State come as red and blue state lawmakers stake out opposing ground on the issue in legislatures across the country.

Lawmakers in states controlled by Democrats are considering legislation to codify abortion in state constitutions, protect providers who treat out-of-state patients, and shore up data privacy related to abortion services. Their counterparts in Republican-led states are debating restrictions that include more stringent time limits on the procesure, exceptions for rape and increased controls on medication that can induce abortions.

In Washington State, the constitutional amendment would need to attract Republican support to pass a two-thirds vote threshold in both the House and the Senate — a barrier that Democrats acknowledged will be difficult to overcome.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun (R) has said he sees no need for a constitutional amendment, noting that state law has protected abortion access since 1970.

“I don’t see a path where that changes without a vote of the people,” he said at a press conference this month. “You can game it out, there’s no real path, no matter who is in the majority.”

The other bills need only simple majority support in both chambers. They would:

  • eliminate cost-sharing for patients seeking abortion care.
  • regulate hospital and health system mergers to ensure that patients have access to reproductive, gender affirming and end-of-life care — an issue that has been at the forefront as religiously affiliated hospitals expand throughout the state.
  • shield patients and providers of reproductive and gender-affirming care in Washington from retribution by other states.
  • give Washington employers that provide reproductive care benefits tools for redress against retaliation by states with anti-abortion laws.
  • strengthen protections for the privacy of health data by blocking websites and apps from collecting and sharing it.
  • ensure that health care providers cannot be disciplined in Washington state because they provide reproductive or gender affirming care in accordance with state law, regardless of where the patient resides.

Democrats called the hearings Tuesday the first step in a multi-layered process before any of the measures are subjected to a vote, but that they were intended to send a message as the question of abortion access has roiled states on both sides of the political spectrum.

“Uniting the policy hearings together gives us the opportunity to show the country that Washington’s commitment remains strong, and to show our own constituents that we are here to do this work early to get these bills moving,” Sen. Emily Randall (D) said. “Our policies run the breadth of the issues that we feel are most pressing to tackle from cost sharing to privacy protections and shield laws to protect people coming from outside of the state to seek care. We’re doing everything we can.”