State ruling ensures women can make health care choices

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDAugust 31, 2013 

Our state has a long history of staying ahead of the curve when it comes to the rights of women to make health care choices they determine are best for them and their families.

This attitude toward choice began in 1970 - three years before the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade - when Washington became the first and only state to legalize a woman's right to choose. Years later, in 1991, Washington voters reaffirmed this fundamental right by approving Initiative 120, which requires that when the state provides maternity benefits, services and information to women intending to carry a pregnancy to term, the state also must provide substantially equivalent benefits, services and information to women who may choose to terminate a pregnancy.

It was this wording in the law that Attorney General Bob Ferguson based his thoughtful and thorough opinion in response to my request regarding whether or not this law is broken when public hospital districts contract with a health care provider that does not provide the full range of reproductive health care services.

Public hospital districts are government entities created by statute and governed by a board of publicly elected commissioners. Their core purpose, and legal mandate, is to provide for the health needs of the district's residents. Most public hospital districts are located in areas considered to be rural and play a vital role in meeting the challenges facing rural health care delivery and access. While public hospital districts are subject to substantial regulation, they also are able to access tax revenues and low cost bonds, and in some cases are exempt from some forms of taxation. In short, the Attorney General found that public hospital districts must provide for the delivery of health care services that will allow women to exercise their full range of fundamental legal reproductive rights. I was compelled to ask for clarification on this issue because of the increased role faith-affiliated hospitals are playing in our state's health care system. Due to this increase, I was asked numerous times whether or not these changes meant our residents would no longer have access to certain types of health care services that are typically offered by secular hospitals.

Let me be clear that my request and the Attorney General's opinion are in no way a trivialization of the quality of care provided by faith-based hospitals. Religious organizations have a long and sacred tradition of delivering critical health care services in this state and throughout our country. Further, they have every right to determine what care they want to provide based on their religious doctrines. My concern arises when an organization receiving public funds to provide medical services restricts the services they provide based on their religious beliefs. In other words, a privately funded medical provider has the right to limit their services and referrals. But when that organization is publicly funded, I believe strongly that they should provide or refer for all types of health care services - including contraception, abortion and family planning.

The Attorney General's opinion strongly and broadly states that when contracting for the provision of health care services, public hospital districts must comply with their statutory duty to assure that the health needs of the district are met through access to maternity services as well as access to contraception and abortion services, regardless of the organization - religious or otherwise - delivering those services. Public hospital districts may meet this obligation through contracting with one or more entities.

It seems that every day we read about a state legislature somewhere in our country that has put up another roadblock preventing women and their families from accessing the full spectrum of reproductive health care.

I am proud that in our state, this is not the case. In our state, we continue to tear down these roadblocks - making sure women can continue to make their own healthcare choices. I applaud the leadership displayed by our Attorney General on this difficult and contentious issue and very much appreciate his diligence in responding to my request for a formal opinion.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

State Sen. Kevin Ranker represents Washington's 40th legislative district, which comprises all of San Juan County and significant portions of Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Mount Vernon, Burlington, Anacortes and much of Bellingham.

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