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Gov. Jay Inslee says WA will make clear that hospitals must provide emergency abortions

A man is standing at a wooden podium with a seal on the front and two women on either side. Off to a side, a poster board with graphic characters says, "Politicians Out Of  Emergency Rooms."
Gene Johnson
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks to reporters during a news conference in Seattle on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, as abortion rights supporters listen.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday said Washington will spell out in state law that hospitals must provide abortions if needed to stabilize patients, a step that comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on whether conservative states can bar abortions during some medical emergencies.

There is no indication that patients have been denied emergency abortions in Washington, but the Democrat said during a news conference in Seattle he wanted to remove any doubt that hospitals were required to provide those services if necessary.

“This is a preventative against the Supreme Court decision,” Inslee said. “If your health is going to be damaged in any way as a result of not getting emergency services, you ought to have that right to get those emergency services."

Most Republican-controlled states have imposed restrictions on abortion since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, eliminating the right to terminate a pregnancy under federal law. Fourteen have banned abortion at all stages of pregnancy with limited exceptions.

Among them is Idaho, which bans abortion except in life-threatening situations, with doctors subject to felony charges and up to five years in prison for violations. The Biden administration sued to block Idaho's ban, arguing that federal law requires hospitals that accept Medicare to provide emergency abortions when a patient's health is threatened, though not necessarily their life.

The Supreme Court has allowed Idaho's ban to go into effect as it considers the case, with a ruling expected by the end of this month.

Most Democratic-controlled states have adopted laws or issued executive orders seeking to protect abortion access, including Washington, which stocked a three-year supply of abortion medication in case federal court rulings limit its availability.

Washington has also increased funding for reproductive care clinics, barred the State Patrol from cooperating with out-of-state abortion investigations, and adopted a shield law to protect patients who obtain abortions in Washington from extradited to face charges in another state.

Abortion rights advocates say the bans have already affected the emergency care provided to pregnant women. More women whose conditions are typically treated with abortions must now be flown out of state for care, since doctors must wait until they are close to death to provide terminations within the bounds of state law.

Washington's administrative code says hospitals must provide emergency services to patients, but so far does not say specifically that includes emergency abortions. Inslee directed the state Department of Health to change that.

“Washington state hospitals are already required by state law to provide emergency care to people experiencing these types of pregnancy complications,” the Washington State Hospital Association said in a written statement Tuesday. “Washington hospitals are providing this care, including to people who have crossed the border from Idaho in need of care.”

The number of women coming to Washington from out of state for abortions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe has jumped by 50%, Inslee said.

Dr. Sarah Prager, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington, said Tuesday she has treated patients who have traveled to Washington in the past two years after they were unable to obtain care at home — including one with a preterm rupture of membranes and infected uterus, another with a complicated ectopic pregnancy that was about to burst, and a third who was bleeding from an incomplete miscarriage.

“When I or any doctor has a sick patient in front of me, I shouldn't have to pause and consult with the hospital's legal team to figure out if I'm able to act,” Prager said. “These moments wasted can cost patients their health, their future fertility and even their life.”

Abortion opponents say doctors have mishandled maternal emergency cases and argue that the Biden administration has overstated the danger to undermine state abortion bans.

“We want the highest standard of care for women, and we do make an exception for abortion to save the life of the mother," including in cases of ectopic pregnancy, said Esther Ripplinger, president of Human Life of Washington. “But when you say ‘health’ is threatened — that's an interesting proposal, because now, ‘health’ can mean, 'Oh, I've got a headache, I need an abortion.' ... We need to be very specific about what is that emergency and what is not.”

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