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Judge Orders Public Hospitals in Washington to Perform Abortions


Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis, who resides on the Skagit County Superior Court, issued a ruling Tuesday that requires public hospitals that provide maternity services to also perform abortions.

As part of its national campaign to bully hospitals into performing abortions, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Skagit Regional Health District and its Skagit Valley Hospital on behalf of Kevan Coffey, a nurse practitioner who had been previously employed at the Skagit Valley Hospital.

While working at the hospital, Coffey would refer patients seeking an abortion to Planned Parenthood because the hospital lacked doctors willing to perform the procedure. Washington law currently protects doctors who refuse to perform abortions from being discriminated against in employment.

Judge Montoya-Lewis wrote in her ruling, “If the Hospital District chooses to provide maternity services, it is acting in its capacity as a state entity, and, therefore, must provide those services in an equivalent manner those women who seek voluntary [abortions].”

Washington state law prohibits hospitals from asking prospective employees whether they would be willing to perform abortions. State law guarantees that “no person may be discriminated against in employment or professional privileges because of the person’s participation or refusal to participate in the termination of a pregnancy” (RCW 9.02.150).

How can a hospital be expected to perform abortions if state law prohibits it from seeking to employ doctors willing to perform the procedure? Judge Montoya-Lewis said in her ruling that the hospital has an obligation under Washington’s Reproductive Privacy Act to secure doctors who are willing to perform abortions. However, this would entail the hospital making the doctor’s willingness to perform abortions a condition of employment, which would necessarily discriminate against pro-life doctors, thus violating state law.

Thomas Ahearne, a lawyer for the health district, said the hospital’s board will meet Thursday to decide their next steps. The hospital is considering appealing the judge’s ruling.

Additionally, it is notable that Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief supporting Coffey and the ACLU. He released a statement after the judge’s decision, calling it “a great victory for reproductive rights in Washington.”

The conscience and religious rights of health care providers are increasingly under attack. A U.S. district court in Michigan recently dismissed a lawsuit against a Catholic nonprofit that operates 86 hospitals in 21 states. The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit, wanted to force the hospitals to change its policy that prohibits doctors from performing abortions.

The Illinois Assembly recently passed SB 1564, which amends the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act by removing some conscience protections for physicians and health care providers who hold moral objections to abortion. If signed by Governor Bruce Rauner, the law would force physicians to transfer or refer patients wanting an abortion to another physician willing to perform the procedure. Pro-life doctors and those working at crisis pregnancy centers would also be required to inform pregnant women about the benefits of undergoing an abortion.

FPIW also recently brought attention to Planned Parenthood’s Washington state candidates survey, which attacked the forty percent of Washington’s hospitals that are managed by Catholic health systems. Planned Parenthood claims that these religiously-affiliated health providers “undermine patients’ rights” and “interfere with their ability to obtain a full range of health services” because they refuse to perform abortions.

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