Students lobby for WA bills on abortion and gender-affirming care

Young activists visited Olympia to back the expansion of health-care access, including bills to shield providers and patients from out-of-state prosecution.

youth protest in front of the legislative building

Young protesters stand on the steps of the Capitol in Olympia on Planned Parenthood's Teen Lobby Day. (photo courtesy Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates)

Six days before what would’ve been a milestone anniversary for Roe v. Wade, 14 teenagers clad in bright pink, purple, and green T-shirts filed into a small room at the John L. O’Brien Building at the State Capitol. The peer sex educators in their communities were in Olympia for meetings with their state representatives as part of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Lobby Day.

Before they headed to their appointments, the students spoke in support of legislation that would eliminate financial barriers to abortion, protect patients’ data privacy, and shield abortion providers from prosecution.

The legislation the young people came to Olympia to support  – including state budget allocations to improve abortion care infrastructure and bolster clinic security – reflect recent legislative efforts to uphold and expand abortion rights in Washington in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. The decision has led to abortion bans and restrictions in about half the country and increased demand on Northwest clinics.

For Adam Bessman, 17, a member of Planned Parenthood’s Skagit Teen Council, policies removing barriers to reproductive health care represent a step forward for young people, who have the most to lose as the full effects of Roe’s reversal unfold over the years to come. “It’s not going to impact the people who made that decision,” he said. “It’s impacting us.”

Several of the bills under consideration focus on protecting reproductive health care providers and patients from prosecution and invasion of privacy, and eliminating systemic barriers to abortion. While written in response to anti-abortion policies in other states, the laws also preempt future legislation that could target gender-affirming care.

A Shield Law, House Bill 1469, would protect people who seek, provide, or facilitate abortion in Washington from out-of-state investigations and prosecutions, and would apply to gender-affirming care providers as well as abortion clinics.

A second proposal, House Bill 1340, would prevent medical licensing boards from retaliating against clinicians for providing reproductive health services and gender-affirming care. 

“I have an active medical license and routinely provide sexual and reproductive health care in five states, three of which are now states that have banned or severely restricted abortion care, and I fear restrictions to gender-affirming care in those states might be coming,” said Dr. Erin Berry, Washington Medical Director for Planned Parenthood Great Northwest, Hawaii, Alaska, Indiana, and Kentucky, during a Jan. 24 hearing on HB 1340 in the House Healthcare and Wellness Committee.

A third bill, the “My Data, My Health” Act (House Bill 1155 and Senate Bill 5351), would protect personal data related to reproductive health and gender-affirming care shared with third-party digital apps and websites like period trackers. The proposal is sponsored by Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, and Rep. Vandana Slatter, D-Bellevue. “All of that information needs to be protected,” said Dhingra at a rally held on Teen Lobby Day after the meetings with lawmakers concluded.

Digital trails that can serve as documentation of abortion were used in prosecutions even before Roe was overturned. In 2013, a Pennsylvania woman was charged for ordering abortion pills online for her daughter after being reported by hospital staff while seeking follow-up treatment.

Dhingra’s bill would protect patient information from being used in such cases, and crack down on digital tracking techniques like geofencing, used to capture private data and send targeted messaging to patients. It would also close a legal loophole that allows crisis pregnancy centers, anti-abortion organizations that resemble medical clinics but are not HIPAA-compliant, to share pregnant people’s personal health information with anti-abortion activist groups.

At the rally, teens filled the steps at the Capitol, while Dhingra affirmed her commitment to upholding reproductive rights. “It is completely unconscionable that my mother had more rights in this country than my two daughters,” she said.

That sentiment echoed something Bessman had said earlier, about the pressure young people feel to respond when tragedies that directly affect their future survival are met with inaction from older generations. It’s a dynamic visible in media coverage of young activists like X González and Greta Thunberg. “Gen Z specifically have been pushed into this narrative of savior activist extraordinaires,” he said.

The teens also spoke in support of several other bills introduced – or reintroduced – this session, including Senate Bill 5242 and House Bill 1115, which would prohibit copays for abortion, eliminating out-of-pocket costs for people who seek treatment using private insurance; and another that would require hospital mergers to ensure continuity of care, particularly for reproductive health services and gender-affirming care. Known as the Keep Our Care Act (Senate Bill 5241 and House Bill 1263), it was introduced in committee last year but did not advance.

The cost-sharing, digital privacy, and medical licensing measures, as well as the proposed Shield Law, were all heard in committee on Jan. 24, two days after the 50th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.

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