OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington lawmakers, poised to pass a bill requiring health insurers to pay for abortions, were told this week this would violate federal law and cause defunding of federal health and welfare funding.
Dominican Sister Sharon Park, director of the Washington State Catholic Conference, testified last week before the House Ways and Means Committee, telling state legislators the Reproductive Parity Act was in violation of the federal Hyde-Weldon Amendment.
“It’s a violation of religious freedom and of the Constitution,” Sister Sharon said. “But it also is a violation of the Weldon Amendment. If they do it the [federal] Health and Human Services Department can completely withdraw all its spending. Why would they do that, when most health insurers in the state already offer health plans offering abortion coverage?”
The Hyde-Weldon Amendment, attached to all federal health-spending bills since 2004 except Obamacare, prohibits state governments from forcing any agency, including insurance providers, from paying for abortions, on pain of losing federal health funding.
The Reproductive Parity Act would require any state-based insurer that already offers maternity coverage to also provide abortion coverage. The bill could cost Washington at least $300 million in HHS funding, according to Republican state Sen. Mike Padden. “When awareness of this grows, it could put the bill in jeopardy,” he said. “We hope so.”
But Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, an affiliate of National Right to Life, seems less optimistic. “We have a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic governor,” he noted.
While the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups have rallied against the bill, not all churches have. Rev. Elizabeth Patrick, a Baptist minister, told the House Health Committee: “It is because of my religious beliefs that I support abortion. Unintended and unplanned pregnancies lead to poverty, homelessness and worse. It is my moral obligation as a religious counselor and as a minister to help women make the serious moral decision of whether or not to have an abortion and to help create a world where no woman is coerced by her inability to pay for an abortion to carry a pregnancy to term.”
“When a woman finds out she is pregnant, she turns to her doctor, her family and her faith for guidance. Whether she chooses to proceed with a pregnancy or to have an abortion, she should not have limited options,” she said. “If her insurance covers her pregnancy, it is equitable and fair that it also covers her abortion.”
Other advocates insist it merely maintains the status quo against possible incursions on health insurance triggered by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which requires each state to set up exchanges or markets offering competing plans — including those that do not cover abortion.
Melanie Smith of the National Abortion Rights Action League said that if too many opt for the abortion-free plans, the plans covering abortion would become too expensive. The Washington bill would maintain “access the way we have it now,” according to Smith.
But the bill would also force Christian organizations or insurance companies to provide abortion coverage, a violation of their consciences, Sister Sharon said. And Human Life of Washington State’s Kennedy added that the underlying thinking behind the bill is fallacious and outrageous: “Abortion, the destruction of a human being in utero, is not health care. Pregnancy is not a disease. Thus, to equate the act of destroying an unborn human life with basic health care is morally abhorrent to thousands of Washington citizens.”
A state libertarian organization spokesman, policy director Trent England of the Freedom Foundation, pointed out “the irony” of the bill. Supporters of the bill, he noted, claim “this debate is supposed to be about choice,” yet they are passing a law that “will say to a woman in Washington state, ‘You are not allowed to have a choice. You have to purchase insurance that covers abortion.’ This means a pro-life woman will be paying for other women to have abortions.”
Sister Sharon Park said she knew of one pro-life group planning to challenge the bill in court, if it were enacted.
Kennedy hopes legislators will drop their support once they consider the risk of losing federal funding.
“We have a huge deficit as it is and many underfunded social programs. The loss of federal money would be catastrophic.” From the reaction of Ways and Means Committee members to testimony about the Hyde-Weldon Amendment, said Kennedy, “It looked like they hadn’t even thought of it.”
If the bill passes, a court challenge is likely. Robert Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Chicago-based Thomas More Law Center, says his firm is working with several Washington pro-life groups to find “the perfect plaintiff” to bring an action against the bill if it passed. To sue, advised Thompson, a plaintiff must first get “standing” with the court.
“It isn’t enough that the bill upsets you. You have to make the case that it causes you a special injury,” said Thompson. “A Catholic hospital or school would have standing if it could no longer provide health insurance to its employees. It could argue that it would not be able to compete for employees.” Thompson said the bill was “a clear violation of freedom of religion.”
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.