With the end of Roe on so many minds, it might surprise those of us in liberal Seattle how much abortion access in our state is under the control of the Catholic Church.
As Leah Rutman, policy adviser at the ACLU of Washington, has said, “Having the right to an abortion doesn’t mean you have access to it.”
Washington is just one of the few states in which more than 40% of hospital beds are controlled by Catholic doctrine. This shift became more acute with the 2021 merger of Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan, creating Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, which operates 11 hospitals and 300 care sites. With this merger, Virginia Mason said she would “not become Catholic,” according to The News Tribune reports, but would no longer provide “elective” abortions or participate in the process of dying with dignity. the state.
The new entity’s website now reads: “It is the policy of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health that all services rendered at our facilities should be life supporting. At no time may actions to end life be performed or permitted. »
This latest merger came nearly a decade after secular Sweden merged with Catholic Providence in 2013 and stopped providing most abortion care. Under pressure from reproductive health advocates in 2011, when the merger was being considered, Swedish partnered with Planned Parenthood to underwrite a clinic offering abortion care near the hospital.
A spokesperson for Providence Swedish Puget Sound said in an email: “Elective abortions are not performed in Swedish facilities. However, the Swede does not deny emergency care. When a pregnant patient’s life is in danger, Swedish clinicians provide all necessary medical interventions, including pregnancy terminations, to protect and save the patient’s life.
The spokesperson also said that although Sweden provides health care prohibited by the Catholic Church’s ethical and religious guidelines for Catholic health services – such as birth control for the prevention of pregnancy, ligatures tubes for sterilization purposes and in vitro fertilization to treat infertility – La Providence no. You can consult the services provided by hospitals in the public database of the Ministry of Health.
The provision of emergency care aligns with the Pregnancy Protection Act of 2021, which Governor Jay Inslee signed into law to allow physicians practicing in Catholic hospitals to provide abortion care when the life of a patient is in danger.
Access to abortion care is dramatically unequal in Washington, with large swaths of the state — especially rural and eastern counties — lacking any abortion clinics.
Abortion is already illegal or heavily restricted in 11 states, and 12 more are on the verge of doing the same.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that with Roe’s overthrow, Washington will see a 385% increase in the number of people traveling here for abortion care, largely expected from Idaho and Montana to the east.
With Catholic-controlled hospital systems representing a growing share of our health care providers, the small number of clinics providing care in the eastern part of the state, for example, could be inundated with patients from the out of state.
The ACLU’s Rutman said these types of hospital mergers have an effect on patient care. When these consolidations took place, she said, “We saw statewide decreases in reproductive health care, end-of-life care, access to gender-affirming care.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Despite strong rhetoric for abortion rights from elected Democratic leaders, Rutman said, California and Oregon have done a much better job of ensuring these mergers don’t hurt access. from patients to reproductive health care, providing a much more robust monitoring system.
Rutman cited an example of a merger that affected both Washington and California, saying, “You can see where California not only reviewed all the material, held statewide town hall meetings, comment periods to get feedback from individuals and ultimately approved the merger with caveats. about maintaining reproductive health care… And in Washington State, none of that happened. So that really demonstrates the significant need to ensure that we have more oversight here.
During the last legislative session, the Keep Our Care Act was introduced, which would have required health systems to show how a merger would impact, among other things, “reproductive, gender-affirming, emergency and end of life. The state attorney general would have had to determine through a public process whether the transaction would harm access and affordability of care. It has stalled, but could be reintroduced next year.
With so much fear and uncertainty surrounding abortion care, it is somewhat comforting to live in a state that protects a pregnant person’s right to choose, but that only matters if she has the ability to exercise that choice. Washington still has a long way to go to stand up to religious doctrines and fulfill this promise for everyone.