MOUNT VERNON — Skagit Regional Health is expanding its abortion services following a 2016 court ruling that public hospitals providing maternity services must also provide on-site abortions.
The ruling, stemming from a lawsuit filed in 2015 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, stated Skagit Regional Health failed to comply with the state’s Reproductive Privacy Act. The act prevents the state from interfering with a woman’s right to have an abortion.
Skagit Regional Health was providing abortions on a very limited basis when the lawsuit was filed, according to the ACLU.
“We brought the lawsuit to ensure that women can access the full range of reproductive health care at public health facilities in their own communities,” ACLU of Washington Executive Director Kathleen Taylor said in a news release.
A Whatcom County Superior Court judge ruled June 20, 2016, in favor of the ACLU. Skagit Regional Health appealed the ruling in September to seek clarity on how to comply with the act.
As part of the lawsuit’s settlement agreement, Skagit Regional Health will provide medication and surgical abortions. It will also provide training for abortion procedures at its family practice residency program, according to an ACLU news release.
The Skagit Regional Health board of commissioners approved the lawsuit settlement agreement July 26 at its regular board meeting. All parties must approve and sign the agreement before it is finalized.
Both sides said they would not disclose the full agreement until it’s finalized.
“Skagit Regional Health respects our patient’s choices and treats every patient with compassion and respect,” Skagit Regional Health CEO and President Mike Liepman said in a news release. “Because Skagit Regional Health offers services to allow women to voluntarily terminate their pregnancies, it is important we implement a seamless process that removes any barriers to accessing the services we offer.”
Before the ruling, Skagit Regional Health had argued in court that while it was OK with having abortions performed on site, it didn’t have staff members willing to provide the services.
Although the Reproductive Privacy Act allows health care providers to opt out of providing abortions, the judge said that didn’t give the entire hospital a right not to offer abortions.
The lawsuit was brought by the ACLU on behalf of Mount Vernon nurse practitioner Kevan Coffey, who formerly worked at Skagit Valley Hospital.
Coffey said in court filings that when she would call the hospital’s women’s health department for a patient who wanted or needed to terminate a pregnancy, the department would tell her to refer the patient to Planned Parenthood.
She also described the case as a personal issue, saying she takes medication that can cause severe birth defects and would need an abortion if she became pregnant.
As part of the ACLU’s campaign to enforce the Reproductive Privacy Act, the public hospital district in Jefferson County — Jefferson Healthcare — has also expanded its abortion services, according to the ACLU news release.
The ACLU is also in talks with other public hospital districts regarding abortion services, according to the release.