South Seattle Emerald: In Recent Years, Washington Expanded Abortion Access. Now We Know How Important That Is

June 12, 2023 12:30 pm Published by

By Megan Burbank / June 9, 2023

Even before the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision leaked a year ago, Washington State lawmakers established new and strengthened protections for abortion access, shielding providers and patients from prosecution and protecting private health information not covered under HIPAA. Though the impact of Dobbs will likely not be fully understood for years or even decades, recent developments nationwide show how critical Washington’s protective policies are.

Shielding Private Health Data

After Dobbs was decided, The Washington Post columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote about his concern that digital trails through online tools like Google’s suite of products could be used to prosecute people for abortion. In a recent follow-up, Fowler used Google Maps to visit locations linked to reproductive health, including abortion clinics. “In about half of the visits,” he wrote, “I watched Google retain a map of my activity that looked like it could have been made by a private investigator.”

This goes against a promise Google made to “proactively delete” sensitive location data, Fowler writes. But his findings suggest this is not the solution it was presented to be.

In Washington, however, sensitive digital data is now safeguarded under the My Health, My Data Act, which passed the legislature this session and has since been signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. The law protects the kind of sensitive data Google said it would — and state laws tend to be more effective than promises from corporations.

Protecting Pregnant People From Prosecutorial Overreach

In May, a 24-year-old Alabama woman, Chelsey Leann Redmon-Zellers, was charged with “chemical endangerment of a child resulting in death” after delivering a stillborn baby and testing positive for drugs. This is a felony in the state, thanks to a law originally enacted to crack down on meth labs. That might be surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Even before Dobbs, pregnant people were prosecuted under laws unrelated to pregnancy or abortion for pregnancy outcomes like the one Redmon-Zellers experienced. The most notorious of these cases is arguably that of Rennie Gibbs, who in 2007, at age 16, was indicted on charges of “depraved heart murder” after giving birth to a stillborn baby and testing positive for cocaine. The infant’s cause of death, reported at the time by Nina Martin at ProPublica, was that the umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby’s neck. That didn’t stop the fetal harm case from progressing.

Media accounts might suggest criminalizing pregnant people for their pregnancy outcomes, especially when drugs are involved, is a uniquely post-Roe phenomenon. But it extends all the way back to the War on Drugs, and the nexus between the welfare state and the legal system in the 1990s that targeted women found to have used drugs during pregnancy; then, as now, this dynamic disproportionately impacted people from marginalized communities, and — as with so many punitive approaches to drug use — sowed tremendous harm.

Many states have laws that can be used to punish pregnant people in these kinds of circumstances; Washington is one of them. But in 2022, the Affirm Washington Abortion Access Act protected pregnant people in the state from being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes.

That means what happened to Redmon-Zellers can’t happen here. But her case shows that without vigilance, frivolous and damaging prosecutions can continue this legacy of harm.

Continued Community Doula Support

With ongoing attacks on abortion curtailing access and well-being for pregnant people across the country, it’s important to acknowledge developments expanding access to critical reproductive health care that encompass much more than abortion. Here in Washington, Open Arms Perinatal Services announced on Twitter in May that its Community-Based Doula program has been reaccredited through HealthConnect One, an organization dedicated to promoting birth equity through training and organizing community health workers and connecting families in BIPOC communities with peer-to-peer supports, including breastfeeding counseling and birth doulas.

Open Arms was the country’s first community doula program to receive this accreditation, according to a news release from HealthConnect One announcing the extension of the program’s accreditation. “What an honor it is to see HC One’s Community-Based Doula 5 Essential Components implemented with fidelity and commitment by Open Arms Perinatal Services’ entire team for over 10 years,” said Brenda Reyes, the organization’s vice president of training and curriculum, in the release. “Their dedication, love, commitment, and advocacy for the families they serve is valuable and it lets us know how important it is for birth and racial equity. May we continue to be inspired and celebrate the wonderful work being led by Black, Indigenous and People of Color across the country.”

Since 2009, Open Arms’ Community-Based Doula program has worked with more than 300 families navigating the birthing process. Its work is critical, because Black and Indigenous birthing people face significant health disparities compared with white patients when it comes to perinatal outcomes. Doula support has been shown to help offset these disparities: It’s birth justice in action. And it’s likely to become even more important in the absence of Roe.

Read the original in the South Seattle Emerald.