Washington Judge: Public Hospitals Must Offer Abortion Care

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Washington Judge: Public Hospitals Must Offer Abortion Care

Nicole Knight

Passed by voter initiative in 1991, the Reproductive Privacy Act says, "The state shall not deny or interfere with a woman's fundamental right to choose or refuse to have an abortion," and that a public hospital may not discriminate against that right.

Public hospitals in Washington state must offer abortion care if they also provide maternity services, a state superior court judge ruled Tuesday.

Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis found that the Skagit Valley Hospital violated the state Reproductive Privacy Act (RPA) by failing to employ staff to perform abortions, and instead referred patients to a Planned Parenthood clinic roughly 29 miles away.

Passed by voter initiative in 1991, the RPA says, “The state shall not deny or interfere with a woman’s fundamental right to choose or refuse to have an abortion,” and that a public hospital may not discriminate against that right. The law does not apply to private medical facilities and individuals.

Skagit Valley Hospital, located in northwest Washington and part of the third-largest public district hospital in the state, is licensed for 137 beds, and offers maternity, emergency, cancer, and cardiac care, among other services. In a lawsuit filed in Skagit County Superior Court last year, Kevan Coffey, a licensed nurse practitioner who lives in Skagit County, charged the public hospital with breaking the law by referring patients who seek abortion care to Planned Parenthood.

In the complaint, Coffey said she was “unable to carry a pregnancy to term without facing severe, life-birth defects,” noting, “I personally want to have all options, including abortion, available to me.”

The hospital, however, contended in court documents that it couldn’t find staff to perform abortions.

The judge didn’t buy it, writing in her decision, “In effect, the Hospital District shrugs its shoulders and informs patients that they will have to find that aspect of their healthcare elsewhere.”

Judge Montoya-Lewis continued, “Compliance with the RPA is not aspirational; it is mandatory.”

Tom Ahearne, an attorney for Skagit Valley Hospital, said the hospital board would be meeting Thursday and has not yet decided whether to appeal, as the Stranger reported.

Chris Charbonneau, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands, told Rewire that the hospital’s practice of referring patients to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bellingham, Washington, imposed a hardship on patients. She said that about one-third of those seeking abortion care in the state have to drive through two or more counties.

“Hospitals that accept public funding ought to live by the laws of the state that they’re in,” Charbonneau said in a phone interview Wednesday. “When the people of Washington voted for this, they were serious. You don’t just get to ignore the law.”

Washington state and California are among the few states with a Reproductive Privacy Act to guarantee an individual’s right to end a pregnancy.

In a statement issued after the decision, representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, which brought the lawsuit on Coffey’s behalf, called the decision “a huge victory.”

“We hope this ruling makes the promise of the state’s Reproductive Privacy Act a reality for all women across Washington state,” Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU of Washington, said.

Coffey said in a statement that she was “pleased that the court has affirmed the right of women to have access to the full range of reproductive health care services.”

Ahearne, who represents the hospital, told the Stranger that hospital leaders “feel stuck between a rock and a hard place,” concerned about breaking the law by requiring doctors to perform abortions.

The hospital had argued that it “cannot affirmatively seek to hire [abortion] providers … nor can it require them to do so.”

But the judge countered that the provision in the RPA that carves out exceptions for those who don’t wish to offer abortion care applies to individuals and private medical facilities, not public hospitals.