ACLU claims Whidbey hospital violates abortion law

Whidbey General Hospital is violating the law by not providing abortion services, the American Civil Liberties Union claims.

The civil-rights organization sent letters to Whidbey General and two other hospitals and filed a lawsuit against Skagit Regional Health last week in an effort to ensure that public hospitals are complying with the state’s abortion rights law.

Hospital officials, however, feel they are satisfying the law by referring woman seeking abortions to other facilities and that the policy ensures the least amount of delay.

“We take this issue very seriously and are reviewing the details of the ACLU letter,” a hospital spokesman wrote in a statement. “We are also ever-mindful of the fact that the law protects the religious and moral convictions of employees. What’s more, it outright prohibits hospitals from discriminating against employees or job candidates based on those convictions.”

Under the Reproductive Privacy Act, public hospitals that provide maternity services must also provide “substantially equivalent” services for abortion. It also states that no person may be required by law or contract to participate in the performance of an abortion if the person objects to so doing.

Whidbey General’s “reproductive healthcare policy,” which it is required to have by law, states that “women who choose to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy will be provided a referral to a provider outside of Whidbey General Hospital.”

The question likely to be settled in the Skagit County lawsuit is whether referrals to other facilities constitute “substantially equivalent” services.

Leah Rutman, policy counsel for the ACLU, said the group argues that they do not and that the services must be offered by the hospital.

Rutman said the ACLU supports women’s right to reproductive health care. She pointed out that the Reproductive Privacy Act states that “every woman has the fundamental right to choose or refuse to have an abortion.”

While the ACLU has only filed a lawsuit against one of the hospitals, she said others could be filed if the organization feels it’s necessary.

“Our goal is to ensure that women seeking reproductive healthcare services at Whidbey General Hospital have access to the full range of services as provided by law,” the ACLU letter states.

Rutman said the ACLU is still investigating Whidbey General’s policy, including where women are being referred to. There is no Planned Parenthood facility on Whidbey Island.

A spokeswoman for public hospitals, however, said Whidbey General and other hospitals understand that women have the right to choose to terminate pregnancies and that the policies are meant to ensure women have access to those services in the most timely manner possible.

Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association, said hospitals would need a team consisting of a physician, a nurse, an anesthesiologist and a technician to perform the procedure. She said it may be difficult at small hospitals to find members of the team willing to perform abortions.

In addition, she said women shouldn’t have to wait for the team to assemble.

Clunies-Ross said 99 percent of all abortions are done in a clinic setting and only 13 percent of women in the state live in counties without abortion providers.

Clunies-Ross said public hospitals would be caught in a “Catch-22” if the courts side with the ACLU. Hospitals with maternity services would have to provide abortion services but couldn’t require any employees to participate.

“For hospitals, the only way out of this conundrum may be to not provide maternity services,” she said, “and nobody wants that.”