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Pending abortion legislation reignites pro-choice, pro-life debate in Olympia

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that affirmed a woman's right to an abortion, turned 40 years old Jan. 22.

In Olympia, the contentious issue of reproductive rights has already become a major social policy topic in the Washington Legislature this session with two bills, each representing an opposing side of the debate, currently twisting through the lawmaking process.

Pro-life demonstrators and speakers showed up at the Capitol on that Jan. 22 anniversary dated to vent their support for life choices over abortion. Sympathetic legislators told the crowd, estimated at more than 3,000, they would continue to press for abortion limits.

A bill introduced on Monday (Jan. 21) by Sen. Don Benton (R-17th District, Vancouver), who spoke at the rally the following day, would require abortion providers to notify a parent or legal guardian 48 hours before performing such procedure on a minor.

Senate Bill 5156, known as the Parental Notification of Abortion Act, allows exceptions for incest if a court order is obtained. The notification requirement is also waived if there is a medical emergency.

On the pro-choice side of the debate, identical House and Senate bills, titled the Reproductive Parity Act, would require that health-insurance companies, which cover live births, to also cover abortions.

For its supporters, the parental notification bill is an extension of common values.

"If you have to have parental approval to get a tattoo or get your ear pierced, then I certainly think it's not a stretch at all," Benton said.

Sen. Karen Keiser (D-33rd District, Kent) opposes this bill and called the tattoo comparison facile. She said that such a requirement for abortion increases the chance that girls who become pregnant will put themselves at risk if they feel they can't talk to their parents.

"Young women have been abused, beaten or even killed" after their parents found out about an unwanted pregnancy, said Keiser, one of he sponsors of the Reproductive Parity Act in the Senate.

A pregnant teen may run away, attempt suicide or try to do an abortion on herself if she feels she can't seek help from her parents, said Jennifer Allen of Planned Parenthood.

"Most teens in Washington and around the country involve their parents in their pregnancy decisions," Allen said, but when they don't, "the most important thing is that they're safe."

Benton said that after a similar bill he introduced over a decade ago was held up in the House of Representatives after passing in the Senate many of his constituents and colleagues asked him to try again.

"I'm the only senator to pass a parental notification bill," he said.

Similar laws already exist in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

The bill has not been scheduled for a public hearing.

HB 1044, the House version of the Reproductive Parity Act, would mandate health-insurance plans that cover live births to also cover abortions. It was slated for a public hearing before the House Healthcare & Wellness Committee on Jan. 31. The bill was sponsored by 41 lawmakers in the House, including the 23rd District's Rep. Sherry Appleton.

A similar bill introduced in the Senate, SB 5009, has not yet been scheduled for a hearing with that chamber's Health Care Committee. SB 5009 is sponsored by 22 senators, including Sen. Christine Rolfes, a 23rd District Democrat from Bainbridge Island.

Washington has a law establishing the right to choose an abortion. Every healthcare provider in the state currently provides coverage for abortion services, according to Sara Kiesler of Planned Parenthood.

Rep. Eileen Cody (D-34th District, Seattle), the primary sponsor of the House bill, says that after health-insurance exchanges are expected to open in October 2013, providers may raise prices or stop covering abortions due to restrictions on federal money being used to fund the procedure.

Benton, who opposes the bill, called that argument specious. "It addresses no problem that currently exists," he said. "There's not one single insurance company that doesn't cover it."

Health-insurance exchanges are part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2010.

Reproductive rights advocates are uncertain how insurance companies may react to the ACA's requirements and want to make sure access to abortion is preserved.

"It's absolutely vital that Washington women have really strong reproductive parity rights," said Keiser, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill.

Conservative groups such as the Family Policy Institute of Washington say that the bill would infringe upon the rights of those morally opposed to abortion by forcing them to pay for coverage they don't want.

Keiser, however, said that women have the right to abortion access.

"We have a very strong ethic of individual rights in our state," she said.

Zoey Palmer is a reporter with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

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