Advocates for women’s freedom of choice reported overwhelmingly supportive response from passers-by on a sunny afternoon this week outside Planned Parenthood’s Bellingham offices. Sometimes occupied by protesters strongly opposed to abortion, the corner is near where patients seeking a variety of services enter the clinic. (Amy Nelson photo © 2022)

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With bans on abortion rolling out in many states after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, it can be difficult to know what to do and what to expect when seeking reproductive health care.

Local reproductive health care may become even more overbooked and understaffed as people travel to Washington for abortions. Voters’ choices in the Aug. 2. primary election will impact how protected the right to abortion remains in Washington, for both state residents and those traveling into the state, and candidates are weighing in with their perspectives.

Washington may become the nearest place to access abortion for almost five times more people, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which does research focused on reproductive rights.

Interstate influences

Local Planned Parenthood locations have already been facing capacity issues because of the pandemic, said Mount Baker Planned Parenthood chief executive officer Linda McCarthy.

“We are booked out a few weeks for all of our services,” McCarthy said. “We’re trying to work that backlog down to get up to speed and looking at other opportunities to bring in more help.”

Some of that new help may come from out of state, as abortion providers from other states could move to states where abortion is still legal.

However, health care providers moving from one state to another can be complicated, as they may only practice medicine in states where they are licensed. If providing abortion is criminalized, providers who get in trouble in other states could have a hard time getting licensed after moving.

In May, Washington attorney general Bob Ferguson sent a letter asking Washington state licensing boards to take this into account. The licensing boards released an abortion FAQ that didn’t directly respond to Ferguson but did state that “Generally, Washington does not discipline or refuse licensure based solely on the status of licensure or discipline in another state.”

Unlike health care providers, there historically there haven’t been any laws against patients crossing state borders to get physical health care, McCarthy said.

“To single out abortion would be precedent-setting,” McCarthy said.

Before Roe v. Wade was overturned, there were already people coming into Eastern Washington seeking services, McCarthy said, but it’s too soon to predict what the landscape will look like now that many states are partially or completely banning abortion.

Even though there’s no solid idea of how many people will be traveling to Washington seeking services, McCarthy said they’ve been preparing for this for some time. She recommended looking at Abortion Finder, which has state-by-state information about restrictions and recommendations of where to go for services.

Capacity — and protestors

For those seeking abortion services Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, there are several options. 

Planned Parenthood locations in Bellingham and Mount Vernon offer abortion pills for up to 10 weeks and surgical abortion for up to 13 weeks and 6 days, in addition to many other sexual and reproductive health services.

McCarthy said that people coming to Planned Parenthood should expect to encounter protestors outside the clinic. “Our protestors have been more aggressive in the last couple years,” McCarthy said. “They’re out there more often and say more hateful things to our patients.”

However, she did not say that the protestors have gotten worse since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Also, despite protestors and capacity issues, she said that ultimately people coming to a Planned Parenthood location would be connected to the services they need.

Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon is also an option for those seeking abortion services locally. They offer medical and surgical abortions for the first 10 or 13 weeks of pregnancy respectively, along with other family planning services.

For those seeking pregnancy care but not wanting to discuss abortion as an option, faith-based Whatcom County Pregnancy Clinic doesn’t offer or give referrals for abortions.

St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham and other PeaceHealth medical locations also offer pregnancy care but do not perform abortions.

“Because we believe in the sacredness of life’s journey from conception until natural death, direct abortion is not performed in any PeaceHealth-owned, operated or leased facilities,” reads PeaceHealth’s Statement of Common Values.

Protecting access in Washington

After Roe v. Wade was overturned, Gov. Jay Inslee and abortions-rights activists have called for an amendment to Washington’s state constitution to protect abortion access. This amendment would protect access to abortion within the state, as well as protecting abortion providers and the privacy of those who travel to Washington to get an abortion. 

For Inslee’s constitutional amendment to pass, it must have a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate and succeed in a popular vote.  Accomplishing this would require a lot of support. However, Washington state’s constitution has been amended 107 times, so it is possible.

Candidates for 42nd District legislative posts were asked by Salish Current to weigh in on the amendment proposal and the reversal.

Sharon Shewmake, currently a representative for the 42nd District and running for the district’s Senate position in the August primary, said she does not the support the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe V. Wade, and that she does support Inslee’s proposed constitutional amendment. However, she said, “We would have to flip a lot more state representative and senate seats to make the amendment work.”

The other two candidates for the seat, Ben Elenbaas and incumbent Simon Sefzik, did not respond to requests for comment.

On the House side, Position 1 incumbent Alicia Rule expressed outrage and disappointment at “the Supreme Court’s reversal of 50 years of established freedom to choose.” Washington women were guaranteed this right three years before Roe, she noted, saying she supports any efforts to maintain women’s rights in Washington, including the governor’s idea to amend the constitution.

Candidates Kamal Bhachu and Tawsha Dykstra Thompson did not respond to invitations to comment.

Position 2 candidates diverged in their perspectives.

Kyle Christensen said he supports the Supreme Court’s reversal, based on a belief that “high-tech medical equipment … shows it is a life. The argument is often about a woman’s right to choose, but I support baby’s right to live … There’s a two- to three-year-long waiting list of families wanting to adopt.” He said he hasn’t read Inslee’s plan yet but wouldn’t support a plan that would go against the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade; he would support legislation that would mirror the Court’s decision. [Editor’s note: The majority opinion in the reversal was based on the view there there is no inherent right to privacy or personal autonomy in various provisions of the Constitution, not on medical testing.] 

Joe Timmons asserted that he does not support the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. “I believe we need to stand up for reproductive health care and access to safe and legal abortion,” he said. “I am 100% pro-choice and committed to ensuring that reproductive freedom continues in Washington and that our state is a safe haven in access to abortion care. I do support Gov. Inslee’s idea.”

Richard May said the justices who specified “that it was a matter of settled precedent” and voted to overturn are undermining trust in the judicial system. “All persons have an absolute right to control what goes on inside of their own bodies … Those who normally support ‘states rights’ should not be hypocritical when it’s a policy they oppose.” He said he supports Inslee’s amendment if it prevents the state controlling individuals’ reproductive choices. He suggested people who are concerned about others ending their pregnancies should support education, funding and services around contraception, as well as ample child care, public services and parental leave for those who they would rather choose to give birth.

Candidate Dan Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.

— Reported by Sadie Fick

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photo: Amy Nelson © 2022
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