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The State of Reproductive Rights in the State of Washington

Here on The Pulse, we’re doing a tour of reproductive rights and care and abortion access in US states. The situation various throughout the United States, due to the recent Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decision on the Dobbs versus Jackson Womens Health Organization abortion case this past June. This case involved a Mississippi law prohibiting abortions after 15 weeks gestation. Not only did six of the nine SCOTUS justices vote to uphold the Mississippi law, but five of those six also voted to overturn the Roe versus Wade decision of 1973. Written by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, the Dobbs decision reverses Roe v Wade by taking issue with substantive due process, a mechanism through which Roe v Wade applied the 14th Amendment to protect abortion as a privacy right. But the Dobbs decision did not come out of a void. It followed almost a 50 year process of chipping away at abortion rights. During that half century, several US states with state legislatures and governors opposing abortion passed abortion trigger laws, laws that would go into effect in the event of Roe v Wade being overturned. This, plus the passage of new laws, has begun to restrict abortion access further in such states, but there are others states that are going all out to protect abortion rights and in some cases, such as in Kansas, abortion rights have been preserved despite dominance by antiabortion politicians. Meanwhile, pro-choice states, such as New York, are becoming destinations for abortion seekers from elsewhere in the United States.

Today, we are looking at the Evergreen State, Washington, which is a pro-choice state, a status that is linked to the state’s history. That’s because Washington was one of a handful of US states that permitted abortion prior to the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. The Evergreen State began protecting the right to choose with the passage of Referendum 20 in the year 1970, the same year that New York legalized abortion. That 1970 rule did have some limitations, such as a requirement for a woman to get permission from her husband to have an abortion, but for the era it was progressive, so Washington became a place where abortion seeks traveled from other states during the period of 1970 to 1973, somewhat analogous to the role that New York played on the other side of the country. Of course, one Roe v Wade came into effect in January 1973, the rules in Washington opened up still more.

In 1993, the state of Washington passed the Reproductive Privacy Act. This measure codified the standards of Roe v Wade —the right to have an abortion with no restrictions during the first trimester and limited restrictions to protect the mother’s health during the second trimester and beyond. Additionally, the decided to fund low income women seeking abortion within Washington, so that lack of insurance coverage would not be a reason why they could not obtain an abortion. This protection continued right up to the SCOTUS Dobbs decision of June 2022, after which the state of Washington has continued to protect the right to choose and to help women obtain abortion care.

Given all this, in spite of the changes nationally resulting from the Dobbs decision, abortion care is continuing as usual in the Evergreen State, except for the fact that it is becoming a destination for abortion seekers from other states. States from which women will be traveling to Washington for abortion care include the neighboring state of Idaho. As of August 2022, Idaho law has prohibited abortion after six weeks gestation, which is earlier than just about any woman would learn that she is pregnant. As we have discussed here on The Pulse, pregnancy does not even between until about the third gestational week, since gestational weeks are counted beginning on day one of the last menstrual period. The Idaho law has been delayed by some court cases, but it will apply both to medication abortion and procedural abortion. Also, bordering Idaho, the state of Wyoming has a legislature that is dominated by anti-abortion politicians. Thus farm Wyoming has not acted based on Dobbs, but its political structure would allow it to implement prohibitive laws at any point in the near future, and Washington would be one of the destination states for Wyoming women seeking abortion. In the very near future though, Idaho is poised to become a particular source of traveling abortion seekers arriving in Washington, as well as in Oregon, which is also a pro-choice state.

David Warmflash
Dr. David Warmflash is a science communicator and physician with a research background in astrobiology and space medicine. He has completed research fellowships at NASA Johnson Space Center, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brandeis University. Since 2002, he has been collaborating with The Planetary Society on experiments helping us to understand the effects of deep space radiation on life forms, and since 2011 has worked nearly full time in medical writing and science journalism. His focus area includes the emergence of new biotechnologies and their impact on biomedicine, public health, and society.

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