OLYMPIA, Wash. -- A majority of Washington state Senators have signed a letter supporting a measure requiring insurers to cover abortion, but the bill's fate remains uncertain.
The letter -- dated March 5 but made public Monday -- was signed by 25 of 49 state Senators and presented at a packed Senate Health Care Committee hearing where the bill was debated. After the hearing, frustrated supporters, who had long demanded a hearing on the measure, said they expected it would not pass out of the Republican-controlled panel.
"It was just for show," said Sen. Karen Keiser of Kent, one of three Democrats on the seven-member panel. "It was simply a way to provoke a circus in the sense of having a lot of people show up and wave their ideological persuasions in front of us."
The hearing attracted more than 250 people from both sides of the abortion issue, with many of those wearing rival buttons and ribbons and dressed in dueling color schemes left to watch the proceedings on a screen in a nearby room.
Committee Chairwoman Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, declined to answer questions on the bill's status immediately following the hearing and did not respond to subsequent phone calls seeking comment. If it does not advance from her panel by Wednesday, special measures would be required for it to get to the floor for a vote.
The bill, which supporters call the Reproductive Parity Act, was passed by the House by a 53-43 vote in February, with mostly Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.
Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and a bill supporter, has urged the Senate to vote on it.
The bill would make Washington the first state to require insurers that cover maternity care -- which they all most do -- to also pay for abortions. Similar legislation has been introduced each session in the New York State Assembly for over a decade but has never received a public hearing.
In testimony before Becker's committee, those supporting the measure said it would ensure continued abortion coverage in the state once federal health care reforms taking effect next year trigger bureaucratic hurdles for insurers paying for the procedure.
The bill would ensure that a woman's decision about whether to get an abortion "is left with her, her family, her health-care provider and her God," said Elaine Rose, CEO of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, addressing the committee. "Not with government, not with her insurance plan, and with all due respect, not with any of you."
Opponents countered that abortion insurance coverage is already widespread in the state and that the bill is unnecessary. They also said the measure threatens the religious freedoms of businesses and individuals who oppose abortion rights and do not want to subsidize the cost of the procedure for others.
"You all have the second amendment right to bear arms, to own a gun," said Peggy O'Ban, spokeswoman for Human Life of Washington. "But does that mean I have to buy it for you?"
Shortly after the hearing, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, told bill opponents gathered in the hearing room that momentum was on their side, but encouraged them to keep applying pressure on lawmakers to prevent it from receiving a vote in the full Senate.