Democrats’ Reproductive Parity Act dies in Legislature

Sen. Randi Becker (upper left) Credit: John Stang

The Reproductive Parity Act died silently late Monday afternoon.

The bill, supported by Gov. Jay Inslee, would require health plans that cover maternity care to also cover abortions. Republicans in both chambers mostly oppose it. 

The Senate Health Care Committee had a routinely scheduled meeting Monday morning, which could have given the committee a chance to vote on whether to send the bill to the full Senate floor. There's a deadline Wednesday for bills to be voted out of committee.

Following a Monday morning public hearing on the House-originated bill, committee chairwoman Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, refused a request to hold a vote immediately and declined to say whether a committee vote on it would be held later in the day. Republican staff members said a press statement on the matter would be released later Monday. No press statement was released Monday.

Instead, a routine staff notice went out at 4:45 p.m. Monday saying that a scheduled Health Care Committee meeting was canceled.

A similar Senate bill introduced by Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, died weeks ago in Becker's committee without a hearing.  On Monday, Becker's committee held a two-hour public hearing on the House bill by Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle.

Hobbs told Becker's committee  — five Republicans and four Democrats — that Cody's bill has at least 25 votes in the 49-member Senate, and has a letter with the 25 signatures to back that contention. "I feel pretty good if the bill reaches the floor, you'll have more than 25 votes," he said.

Becker is a staunch abortion opponent. She controls whether the bill comes up for a vote to leave her committee.

Ranking Democrat on her committee, Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said about Monday's public hearing: "My sense is that it was a show trial. … It shows fairness, but does not attempt fairness."

During Monday's hearing, Keiser asked Becker to schedule a committee vote on the bill at the end of the meeting. Without comment, Becker did not do so.

Majority Coalition Caucus Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, supports the bill. Even though he leads the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance controlling the Senate, Tom has consistently said he will not tell committee chairpersons what to do.

The House passed the bill 53-43 along mostly party lines. That chamber voted 96-0 to add a Republican amendment to allow insurance carriers to opt out of providing abortion coverage for reasons of conscience. But Republicans were unsuccessful in blocking a Democratic amendment — approved 54-42 — to order insurance companies to notify policy holders in writing that they won't fund abortions for reasons of conscience, and to provide information to those policy holders on how to obtain abortion coverage elsewhere.

Counting those who could not fit into the hearing room, more than 200 people were at Monday's hearing. Each side had religious leaders, doctors, poor people and women who had abortions. Forty-nine people testified, roughly half for and half against the bill.

The debate was largely framed around a few questions.

Is such a bill needed? All insurance carriers currently serving Washington provide coverage for abortions. But what if future carriers entering Washington decide to provide maternity-related insurance but not abortion coverage? Democrats are trying to make Washington the first state to have such an abortion-coverage guarantee. Meanwhile, 21 states allow carriers providing maternity insurance to ban abortion coverage, and efforts are underway in 10 other states to follow the lead of those 21.

Also, should pregnant women be denied abortion insurance coverage because they are poor? And should employers be forced to provide insurance coverage for abortions if they have religious objections to the procedure? 

"This is to ensure the choices (women) make are not controlled by what they can afford," Cody said.

"This is based on what's right for them, and not on their ability to pay for it," said Lonnie Johns-Brown of the League of Women Voters and the National Organization for Women, who had an abortion when she was young and poor following a failed marriage. Her then-employer's health plan covered the procedure, for which she is grateful.

Rabbi Seth Goldstein of Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia said, "This bill ensures all women are treated fairly in all health and reproductive decisions." 

Opponents of the bill included Archbishop Rev. J. Peter Sartain of the Seattle Roman Catholic diocese, who said: "This legislation discriminates against religious organization, churches and people who oppose abortion. … It places the Catholic Church as an employer at risk."

"What concerns me about this bill is the lack of an effective conscience clause," said Seattle attorney Kate Anderson.

"I believe in the right to life, and I don't want to be conflicted if I'm involved in taking the life of an unborn child," said Vivian Stubbers, owner of a small private school with 15 employees in Bellevue.

Peggy O'Ban, a lobbyist for Human Life, said: "You have a constitutional right to bear arms. That doesn't mean I have to buy (a gun) for you."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

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