WA Attorney General Weighs In: Hospital Districts Must Comply with the Law

In clear language, Washington’s attorney general today made clear that public hospital districts that provide maternity services must provide substantially equivalent services for contraception and abortion.

The situation on San Juan Island inspired the request for an AG opinion.  Here, the hospital district commissioners committed 95-97% of available public funds over the next 50 years to a religious institution, PeaceHealth, that forbids abortion as a matter of policy.  About 50 hospital districts are affected by today’s decision and will need to come into compliance with the law.  The AG made clear, without discussing the specifics of any particular situation, that the hospital district commissioners here on San Juan Island, along with many others, must operate in compliance with the law.

You can read the attorney general’s opinion here and background on the San Juan Island case here.

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8 thoughts on “WA Attorney General Weighs In: Hospital Districts Must Comply with the Law

  1. Keith Comess

    I read the opinion and some aspects seemed ambiguous to me, especially the “substantial equivalence” clause. I am not a lawyer so perhaps the language is incontrovertible to those with appropriate training. Has any independent legal authority rendered an opinion on the AG’s statement? Any report from the hospitals?

    1. catholicwatcher Post author

      The great news here is that the decision applies to hospital districts as state agents, and AG Bob Ferguson is their chief lawyer, so what happened here is that the chief lawyer said to all state agents: Follow the law people.
      I’ll post statements from other groups as I get them – this decision is a crucial first step. Next up: The broader Constitutional question of whether state agencies can use public funds to support a religious institution. The language in the Washington State Constitution is very clear on this point.

      1. Keith Comess

        Encouraging news, indeed. Yet, the fact that the law is/was incontrovertible and of long standing (but was not enforced) gives pause, as does the fact that establishment of a taxpayer-subsidized healthcare monopoly (in Whatcom County) also failed to garner the attention of the AG (or the FTC).

        I am clearly skeptical with respect to the outcome of a contest between a financially and politically powerful adversary on one hand and, on the other, elements of the public, particularly when a powerful ideology can be mustered on one side and the other can muster only common sense and the law. I suspect the AG’s statement is simply a prelude to protracted and non-productive legal maneuvering and will likely result in a “compromise”.

  2. Howard Pellett

    So, if the hospital gives information that abortions are performed in New York by Planned Parenthood, then they’ve complied with the law? Tell me why I should get excited by this weak AG’s opinion!!

    1. Keith Comess

      I won’t attempt to predict the outcome, but the evasive approach you’ve outlined would be consonant with both the “hands off” approach taken by government so far and meshes nicely with the applicable religious edicts the Catholic health care system espouses (with only cosmetic changes required). Hopefully, that won’t happen, but it certainly would not surprise me: a forceful application of the law, on the other hand, most certainly would.

  3. catholicwatcher Post author

    Howard, you’re wrong in your interpretation. The words “substantially equivalent” matter. If a hospital taxing district provides maternity care, it must also provide substantially equivalent contraception and abortion services. This was an important step in the longer process of making sure that patient rights, taxpayer rights, and the Washington State Constitution are protected.
    And by the way, if a public hospital district elects not to provide prenatal and other maternity services, including post-natal care, but provides a range of other services, there are other laws that come into play here.

    1. Keith Comess

      In a disclaimer placed in a previous posting in which I was quite candid in admitting my total absence of legal expertise. However and once again, unless “substantial equivalence” has a specific meaning above and beyond what “just folks” think it means, it seems that it is a potential avenue for evasion (in the form of “compromise”, of course). Perhaps to clarify this source of confusion and consternation for other readers of your excellent blog, you might define the precise legal meaning of that crucial phrase.

  4. Frances

    You are to be congratulated. This does, indeed, appear to be a victory for the citizens of WA and for those who value secular health care.
    However, I cannot help but wonder exactly HOW Peacehealth will come into compliance with the law since this would mean directly contravening the ERDs. Will it mean, for example, merely that an alternative provider (such as PP) must be available in the region?

    Incidentally, I tried to read the Spring 2011 Nat’l Catholic Bioethics Quarterly article (which you had linked to in a prior post) on treatments for ectopic pregnancy. What an infuriating morass of double-talk that is!(e.g “…the evil act cannot be the means for producing the good effect.”)

    What it seems to come down to is, why should all of us be beholden to the deliberations and dictates of Catholic Bishops? They play exactly no role in my life or my decision making. But by the bad luck of geography my life may someday be very much affected by their superstitious musings and desire to be omnipresent even in the day to day existence of non-Catholics.

    Please know that I am very grateful for the work you do here and I am heartened by the AG decision. I’ll be interested in how this plays out and will continue to watch closely.


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