Reproductive Health Bill Passes Embroiled Oregon House, Heads to Senate

With a 33-23 vote, Oregon is leading the way in the opposite direction of most of America, as the state’s Democrats try to make it as easy as possible for women to make their own choices about reproductive healthcare.

The Oregon House passed the reproductive health bill, 33-23, sending to the Senate a controversial but hard-fought bill for women’s healthcare access that would close gaps in coverage to contraceptives and abortion

“I believe that affordable access to reproductive healthcare should not depend on who you are, where you live, or how much money you make,” said Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, the chief sponsor of House Bill 3391.

As many states create obstacles for women seeking abortion, and Congressional Republicans debate cutting off access to both contraceptive care and abortion, Oregon is leading the way in the other direction to make it as easy as possible for women to make their own choices about reproductive healthcare.

Republicans used stalling tactics to drag out the debate and make Democrats uncomfortable, as the parley went on for hours through lunchtime on a Saturday.

“My faith and my experience allow me to vote only one way,” said Rep. Rich Vial, R-Wilsonville, before voting against the bill.

“If this will decrease the number of abortions, then sign me up,” said Rep. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, who like other Republicans objected to spending an additional $500,000 on abortions for uninsured women. The Oregon Health Plan already covers the procedure with general fund money for poor citizens, long a point of contention for anti-abortion Republicans.

But while the comprehensive reproductive health equity bill includes abortion, the bulk of the $10 million bill is dedicated to other reproductive health services, including postpartum care for immigrant mothers and free contraceptives for unauthorized immigrants. While most women already have this access, the bill closes a gap that will help the remaining uninsured women prevent unwanted pregnancies and likely will result in fewer abortions.

Because of the existing excellent access to contraception and pregnancy services in Oregon, the state has cut its abortion rate nearly in half in recent decades, dropping from 15,700 in 1980 to 8,600 in 2015 -- even as the state has grown from 2.6 million people to 4 million. At the same time, teen pregnancy rates have dropped from 4.4 percent of girls ages 15 through 17 in 1980 to 1.1 percent of girls in this age range in 2015.

Indeed, Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, used his support for expanding healthcare access to immigrants to extol Democrats to compromise and focus on closing all coverage gaps except abortion.

“The debate today has not been about the majority of this bill,” Stark said. “$9.6 million of taxpayer funds will go to make sure women can have access to all that contraceptive and postpartum healthcare.”

But in the end, Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield, joined all House Republicans in opposing the measure, which in addition to helping immigrant women will requiring all health insurers except Providence to cover abortion and contraceptive care at no additional cost to policyholders, while also ensuring access to transgender people whose gender identity may not match their biological sex at birth.

Lively represents a blue-collar city that has trended Republican as Democrats have moved farther to the left on social issues while weakening their ties to labor and to working-class people on broad economic issues, at least nationally, in favor of finance and large corporations.

Meanwhile, metro Portland and Bend have gotten increasingly upscale and socially liberal and are trending Democratic, giving Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, and Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, leeway to express their pro-choice bona fides even as they joined their otherwise anti-abortion party members in opposing HB 3391 -- on fiscal grounds.

“Unlike some of my other Republicans, I consider myself pro-choice. … I would not make that choice for me but I would not make that choice for anyone else,” Parrish said.

“I fall, like Representative Parrish, in that pro-choice category,” said Buehler. “I think abortion is settled as a legal matter.”

Buehler is also a probable candidate for governor next year -- and supporting abortion rights may be critical to winning a major statewide office in a state where 63 percent of the public supports a woman’s access to abortion in most circumstances, according to Pew.

Parrish objected to the special treatment that Democrats have given Providence Health Plan, accusing them of cowering to the Catholic insurer’s team of lobbyists to continue an exception to the law, which could give it an unfair advantage over their competitors. “This bill is a giveaway of taxpayer dollars to an insurance company.”

The Oregon Health Authority is tasked with developing a work-around for women with Providence insurance similar to its current situation with the Public Employees Benefit Board, but the state could also end up spending tax money on abortions for Providence’s members with unspecified funding.

House Majority Leader Mike McLane, R-Prineville, also objected to the sausage Democrats made with Providence but for a different reason -- he said Providence will have an advantage over its competitors because it will be the only source of insurance for people who want a health plan that doesn’t cover abortion, giving it a monopoly.

Buehler had been a national leader on expanding access to contraceptive care, partnering with former House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, and Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, to allow women to receive birth control from a pharmacist without a doctor’s prescription. Oregon was the first state to grant this access, and other states have since followed, Buehler said.

But in contrast to Stark, Buehler objected to the $9.6 million in the underlying bill for immigrant health services, not abortion specifically. He also opposes a bill that spends $36 million expanding the Oregon Health Plan to unauthorized immigrant children.

He told The Lund Report he objected to spending millions on a new program because the state cannot leverage federal dollars for unauthorized immigrant women, and there are existing structures where they can receive this care, including federally funded health clinics as well as  Planned Parenthood’s charity care.


Reach Chris Gray at [email protected].


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