OLYMPIA — After five years in the making, the Reproductive Parity Act passed both chambers of the state Legislature by slim margins and largely along party lines.
SB 6219 passed with a 50-48 vote on Feb. 28 and awaits Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature. The bill requires employers who offer maternity coverage to provide abortion coverage as well. This means that it allows state funding for abortion and contraception coverage. It also requires health plans renewed on or after Jan. 1, 2019 to provide coverage for contraceptive drugs and devices such as IUDs.
“Healthcare decisions are really some of the most personal and private decisions that we will make,” state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, said during floor debate in the House.
“Government or employers should not be involved in those decisions.”
The bill’s prime sponsor, state Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Snohomish, said the intent of the bill is to ensure that people at all levels of income have access to abortions and contraception coverage, even in the workplace. He has consistently introduced this bill in the Legislature for the past five years.
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.
But opponents of the bill still raised objections, including the Rev. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle and Washington State Catholic Conference, who spoke at the bill’s public hearing in the Senate.
“It would require contraception and abortion coverage while violating the constitutionally protected conscious rights of individuals, churches, businesses and others,” he said. “Maintaining the state’s commitment to religious freedom is vital.”
House Republicans echoed some of these objections.
“The sincerely held religious beliefs of a vast majority of this state are being violated by this bill,” state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane, said.
The bill violates small businesses freedoms to choose what healthcare to offer their employees, said state Rep.Luanne Van Werven, R-Whatcom County.
“We don’t decide or try to influence our employees how they spend their paycheck,” state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland said, speaking of his own business, The Grape Choice wine shop in Kirkland.
“We don’t try to influence or decide for them how they worship or what they decide to do with their lives. We especially never insert ourselves in the decision that a woman makes with her doctor.”
Because of federal law, the state stands to lose federal dollars better spent on public programs and other areas of healthcare, Van Werven said.Under the Hyde Amendment, 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.
“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,” said state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, 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.”
The bill heads to Inslee’s desk where it is to await a signature.
However, the Washington State Catholic Conference, in a letter to the governor, urged him to veto the bill by raising objections to religious freedom rights.
“We strongly believe that even those who do not share our unconditional commitment to the dignity of every person from the moment of conception, have every reason to support our right to exercise our conscience in accord with the teachings of our faith,” the letter states.
The letter is signed by three bishops from Seattle, one from Spokane and one from Yakima.