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Is abortion settled or at risk in WA state ahead of the 2024 elections? Here’s what we found

Anna Zwade, center, attends a rally to defend Roe v. Wade organized by now-former Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at Westlake Park in Seattle. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling the following month reversing Roe, ending decades of federal protections for abortion access.
Megan Farmer /Megan Farmer
Anna Zwade, center, attends a rally to defend Roe v. Wade organized by now-former Seattle city councilmember Kshama Sawant on Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at Westlake Park in Seattle. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling the following month reversing Roe, ending decades of federal protections for abortion access.

Is abortion really settled in Washington state? The answer depends on who you ask.

Democrats, like Gov. Jay Inslee, say it’s under imminent threat.

“There are forces in our nation and in our own state intent on destroying the right of choice,” Inslee said at the annual State of the State speech in January.

Many Republicans, like House Minority Leader Drew Stokesbary (R-Auburn), disagree.

“Abortion rights aren’t under threat in Washington — the only people saying they are are Democrats,” Stokesbary said after Inslee’s speech.

Washington abortion rights have been well-established over decades, putting the state in stark contrast to places where abortion is illegal or severely limited. Still, the conversation around abortion has only gotten louder, including in the race for governor, because the abortion landscape in the state could change depending on the outcome of this year’s state and federal elections.

It is possible that new state leadership could change Washington’s abortion policies in some way, but the biggest shift would most likely come from the federal level.

What candidates running for WA governor say

The debate over abortion continues to come up on the campaign trail. Democrats like Atty. Gen. Bob Ferguson, who is running for the state’s top office, have made protecting abortion rights a key part of their campaigns. Conservative candidates, meanwhile, are trying to strike a balance between their personal views on the issue and what voters want.

That’s the case for the leading Republican candidate for governor, Dave Reichert. Back when he was in Congress, Reichert voted against abortion multiple times, supporting legislation to eliminate federal funding for abortion services, and legislation that would have created a national abortion ban at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

In late April, Reichert appeared at a town hall event hosted by Firmly Planted Action, a nonprofit that opposes abortion. An audience member asked Reichert about surgeries for transgender people and eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood. Reichert responded by talking about “unraveling” certain state laws, and getting more people elected to make changes through the Legislature over time, according to audio from the event provided by the Ferguson campaign.

But, during an interview in May, Reichert said he isn’t interested in overturning the state’s abortion policies.

“I don’t want to change, will not change, Washington law on abortion,” he said. “The people of the state of Washington clearly want those medical services provided to women and want women to have that choice, and I will support them in that choice with the current laws in place.”

Mostly, he would have to follow the Legislature’s lead; the governor alone can't make new laws or repeal old ones, and people opposed to abortion likely won’t be leading the Legislature any time soon.

Still, the office of the governor has a lot of influence. The governor directs state agencies and appoints people to lead them — including the state Department of Corrections, which currently has a stockpile of the abortion drug mifepristone in case the U.S. Supreme Court limits access to the drug. The governor can also veto new laws and state funding, which takes a two-thirds majority in the legislature to overturn. Right now, Democrats in the Legislature don’t have that supermajority. But Reichert said he wouldn’t veto laws or spending based on his views on abortion anyway.

“My personal belief is my personal belief, and I don’t pretend to impose that upon anyone,” Reichert told the Northwest News Network.

But abortion advocates remain skeptical, and say it isn’t enough to stand back on the issue.

“We don’t want to risk that a conservative politician will say today in Washington that they support women and abortion rights. Once they get into office they may do worse things," said Karl Eastlund, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho. “It’s something we just can’t take to chance.”

Ferguson, the leading Democrat candidate for governor, agrees.

“Of course [Republicans are] going to say, ‘Look, there’s no threat, there’s nothing to see here.’ But that is not just naive, that is actually wrong, and the facts show that it’s wrong,” said Ferguson.

He's spent a lot of time targeting Reichert’s views on abortion. Ferguson says the state’s next governor will play an important role in defending abortion against what he and other abortion advocates see as the most “dire” threat: federal courts.

“We’ve literally seen a federal judge in Texas issue a nationwide ban on the abortion medication used in the majority of abortions here in Washington state — it doesn’t get more fundamental than that.”

For now, that case is on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

Where do things in Washington state stand right now?

Overturning the state’s abortion laws would be hard to do — especially at the local level.

All of the state’s existing laws and funding structures act as a buffer between abortion and people within state lines who might want to get rid of it, said Khiara M. Bridges, a professor at University of California, Berkeley's law school.

“It insulates abortion from attack, when the attack comes within the house — right, when the call is from inside of the house,” Bridges said, referencing a line from the film “When a Stranger Calls.”

Washington voters first legalized basic access to abortions in 1970, three years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. Since then, the Legislature has put in place a series of laws — and millions of dollars — to support abortion access, particularly around the time Roe was overturned two years ago.

A 2022 law outlined more comprehensive abortion regulations and rights. In 2023, the Legislature approved a “shield” law to protect abortion seekers and providers from out-of-state lawsuits, and another law aimed at protecting data privacy for people who might seek an abortion. Part of the state budget that year also included roughly $21 million to support abortion providers, as they see an uptick of people seeking services coming from states where abortion is largely banned, like Texas. Lawmakers added more money toward that effort earlier this year.

Even as they continue to push back against new changes, politically active conservatives in the state say they don't see many people interested in putting in the time and effort it would require to overturn those existing policies outright.

“I do believe that the Republicans feel like Washington state citizens have spoken on this issue — I could potentially see maybe some more guardrails around abortion,” said Julie Barrett, founder of Conservative Ladies of Washington, a group that’s interested in policymaking and political campaigns. “As far as abortion being settled law, I do believe it is.”

Barrett said conservatives who are reluctant to talk about abortion miss out on opportunities to reframe the conversation around refining those laws and providing more support to new moms.

Many Democrats in Olympia want abortion protections laid out plainly in the state constitution, which would make it even more difficult for policymakers inside Washington to try overturning abortion access. But Democrats don’t hold enough seats in Olympia to make that change without help from Republicans — who have so far refused.

Some legal experts suggest that the state constitution’s privacy clause could deny a future attempt to get Washington’s abortion laws overturned. Supreme courts in multiple states have ruled that the privacy rights in their constitutions include at least some protection for abortion. It would take a court challenge to one of Washington’s abortion laws before its State Supreme Court would weigh in.

According to a Crosscut-Elway poll ahead of this year’s legislative session, a majority of Washington voters said they wanted the Legislature to focus on other major issues like cost of living, housing and homelessness, safety, and taxes.

But professor Bridges from Berkeley says the country’s next president who opposes abortion could take steps to try and limit access nationwide too.

And ultimately, when federal policy and state policy conflict, federal policy wins out.

“When the call is coming outside of the house, when it’s coming from Washington, D.C., that’s when it matters a little less what Washington state has done,” Bridges said.

So even though the word abortion isn’t written anywhere on their ballots this year, Washington voters will have to decide how much it matters to them.

Copyright 2024 NWNews

Jeanie Lindsay is a state government reporter for the NW News Network. She previously covered education for The Seattle Times and Indiana Public Broadcasting.