By Taylor McAvoy
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
OLYMPIA — A bill to expand birth control choices for women is before the Legislature for the fifth year in a row.
Senate Bill 6219, also called the Reproductive Parity Act, would require health plans that offer maternity coverage to also offer abortion coverage as well as coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices such as IUDs.
“I’m feeling hopeful this year,” Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Snohomish, the bill’s prime sponsor said at a hearing on Tuesday.
The bill would provide state funding for birth control and abortion services for low-income residents, and would require insurance companies to offer the expanded coverage for plans that renew Jan. 1, 2019.
“Family planning decisions should be about if, when, and how many children someone wants to have, not whether their health insurance policy covers the services they need,” Steve Breaux with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii said at the bill’s hearing.
Federal law does not allow federal funds to be used for abortions except to end pregnancies resulting from rape or pregnancies that would endanger a woman’s life. Because of this, most abortions are not covered by federal programs like Medicaid.
However, this bill would allow the state to cover abortions under its Medicaid program provided only state funds are used.
Hobbs said that the votes for the bill are there on the Democratic side and he expects some support on the Republican side as well.
Washington state has voted in the past to uphold abortion rights. Under the Washington Reproductive Privacy Act, the state cannot deny or impair a woman’s right to have an abortion before fetal viability, often the third trimester of pregnancy.
Hobbs has consistently introduced this bill in the Legislature for the past five years.
“It’s vital that women have access to whatever contraceptive drugs, devices, products and services we need to manage our reproductive needs and overall health,” Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Democrat from Vancouver and chair of the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee, wrote in an email.
“This legislation has been a long time in coming and will make a big difference in many women’s lives.”
Pro-choice activists rallied at the legislative building in Olympia on Thursday for equal access to all women’s health care.
“Reproductive justice is economic justice,” they chanted.
However, the bill has faced stiff opposition in previous years from religious and pro-life activist groups. Lawmakers heard from opponents on Tuesday.
“It would require contraception and abortion coverage while violating the constitutionally-protected conscious rights of individuals, churches, businesses and others,” Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle and Washington State Catholic Conference, said at the hearing.
“Maintaining the state’s commitment to religious freedom is vital.”
Sartain said that the Catholic Churches and other morally obligated businesses and organizations simply cannot include coverage for contraception and abortion. If the bill is passed, he said, surely a legal challenge would ensue.
Hobbs said he is unsure if the bill would face a legal challenge but that religious entities and nonprofits with moral objections are already protected. The bill, he said, would not eliminate already established religious and moral protections.
According to Seattle attorney Theresa Shremp, the bill has no opt-out method for those who have a religious or moral objection to providing contraception and abortion services. But the current law already addresses religious exemptions.
A health plan offered by a religious employer or a nonprofit with religious objections is not required to cover contraceptives under a 2014 Supreme Court ruling, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Small business owners are also not required to include contraceptive coverage based on moral conviction.
This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.