(This guest post is by Washington State senator Kevin Ranker, who represents the 40th District in north Puget Sound. Also of note, see Cienna Madrid's report in this week's paper on Catholics taking over Western Washington hospitals. — Eds)
A growing number of religious organizations that may be limiting access to reproductive choices, family planning and end-of-life decisions without the knowledge of the people they serve, have expanded their health care coverage in Washington State. This could significantly impact the legal protection of these critical rights we have fought decades to achieve.
Faith-based organizations provide critical medical services in diverse communities all across our state. For many of these communities, access to health care would be severely limited if not for the presence of these faith-based hospitals and family clinics. This is a tremendous act of service.
It is respectable and appreciated that this service is provided as an extension of religious doctrine. And it is understandable that an organization would resist participating in activities that it believes conflicts with its charter-religious or otherwise. But when many of these faith-based providers receive state funding, and when many of these organizations are the difference between having and not having health care services in a community, I believe it's no longer only an extension of religious doctrine—it becomes a matter of public responsibility.
When a community relies upon an organization to provide the only access to services that affect the health and wellness of their families and women rely on that organization for their family planning options, preserving that access becomes, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Limiting access means contraception may not be available to women who do not wish to become pregnant. It means that women who become pregnant but who do not wish to give birth may have their choices made for them. It means a couple's desire for fertility treatment may be refused and their efforts to begin a family may be denied. It means an elderly parent's end-of-life wishes may not be honored at the local hospital, and their suffering may be prolonged. It means an individual's and family's personal and private decisions may be deemed morally unacceptable by the religious organization and treatments may be denied. It means that many of our citizens may not be told everything they need to know in order to make informed health care decisions about what is best for them and their families. Worse yet, they may not even realize it—and all of this by organizations in some cases who are the public health authority.
Like many Washingtonians, I find these possible scenarios extremely troubling—for women in particular—and believe that access to health care services for all should be the operative value in this discussion. With this in mind, I introduced Senate Bill 5586, legislation that will require health care providers receiving public funds to provide for, or refer for, all legal public health services, including women's reproductive rights and end-of-life services.
Eleven members of the Senate—Democrats and Republicans—signed on to this legislation, which will keep health care access open and all options of care available to patients at new, faith-based medical facilities like PeaceHealth in SedroWoolley and five other hospitals facing mergers in our state. If this issue isn't addressed there will be areas in Washington State where end-of-life services and women's reproductive choices will not be available.
We should all be proud of our state's history of respecting an individual's right to access the health care services that are most appropriate for them and their families. We should also be proud of the growing efforts of faith-based organizations to help fill the dire need for health care services all across our state. We have seen tremendous progress on both accounts in recent years, and we cannot afford to go backwards on either.