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Wash. judge rules hospital district must offer on-site abortion care

June 22, 2016 — A Washington state judge on Tuesday ruled public hospitals that provide maternity care must also offer on-site abortion care, the AP/Sacramento Bee reports (Johnson, AP/Sacramento Bee, 6/21).

Background

The state's Reproductive Privacy Act, adopted in 1991, says the state cannot deny or interfere with a woman's right to have an abortion. It also requires medical facilities in the state that provide maternity care to also offer abortion services (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/13/15).

Lawsuit details

In February 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington filed a lawsuit against Skagit Regional Health, the third-largest public hospital district in Washington and the operator of several clinics and a large hospital. The suit alleged that the hospital district provides a wide range of maternity care services but does not provide medication abortions and rarely offers surgical abortions.

In the suit, ACLU of Washington said Skagit Regional on a regular basis referred women seeking abortions to other, off-site providers, such as Planned Parenthood, instead of providing abortion care at the hospital district's clinics and hospitals (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/20/15).

Skagit Regional claimed the health system is willing to offer on-site abortion care but that it lacks staff to offer the service. Thomas Ahearne, a lawyer for the hospital, claimed that under state law, the hospital could not ask prospective employees whether they were willing to provide abortion care (AP/Sacramento Bee, 6/21).

Also in February 2015, ACLU of Washington sent letters to three other public hospital districts in the state that it believes are not following the state law. One of those hospitals, Jefferson Healthcare, subsequently approved a new reproductive health policy that includes abortion care (Women's Health Policy Report, 8/13/15). According to Doug Honig, a spokesperson for ACLU of Washington, the two other hospitals -- in Mason County and Whidbey Island -- have not yet responded to the letters.

Ruling details

Skagit County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis in her ruling wrote that the state's Reproductive Privacy Act requires public hospitals that provide maternity services to offer abortion care.

Montoya-Lewis held that, contrary to Ahearne's claim, hospitals could ask prospective employees about their willingness to provide abortion care. She noted that while individual providers may choose whether to offer abortion care, "the state, acting here through the Hospital District, cannot exercise such an opt out clause."

Montoya-Lewis wrote, "The Hospital District must comply with its responsibility under the (Reproductive Privacy Act), and the Court sees no tenable reason why it cannot."

Comments

Kathleen Taylor, executive director of ACLU of Washington, praised the decision. "We brought the lawsuit to ensure that all women in our state can access the full range of reproductive health care at public health facilities in their communities," she said, adding, "This ruling makes the promise of the state's Reproductive Privacy Act a reality for women across Washington state."

Citing the notifications sent by ACLU of Washington to other public hospitals in the state, Honig said, "We'll make sure hospital districts around the state are aware of the ruling and of the need for all of them to comply with the law."

Separately, Ahearne said hospital district officials will meet to assess their options, which include hiring staff willing to provide abortion care or closing Skagit Regional's maternity ward (AP/Sacramento Bee, 6/21).