The Attorney General’s Office today released a formal Attorney General’s Opinion in response to a request by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island.
Ranker asked if a public hospital district violates Initiative 120 if it solely contracts with a health care provider that does not provide reproductive care services such as contraception or abortion.
Initiative 120, approved by Washington voters in 1991, declares that residents have a “fundamental right to choose or refuse” birth control or abortion, and it prohibits the state from discriminating against the exercise of these rights in the “regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services or information.” It also requires that, if the state (including public hospital districts) provides maternity care services or information, it must also provide “substantially equivalent benefits, services or information” regarding contraception and abortion.
The Attorney General’s Office formal opinion (AGO 2013 No. 3) states that the plain language of the law dictates that a public hospital district providing maternity care must also provide “substantially equivalent benefits, services or information” under Initiative 120. The Attorney General was not asked to explain exactly how hospital districts may comply with this requirement, or what constitutes substantially equivalent benefits, services or information.
In enacting I-120, the people declared that every individual possesses a fundamental right of privacy with respect to personal reproductive decisions, and imposed certain requirements on the state to protect that fundamental right. This opinion flows directly from the plain language the people adopted to secure that right. Any disagreement with the impact of that language is an issue to be resolved by the Legislature or the people.
The opinion says nothing about purely private hospitals, and instead addresses only hospitals funded by tax dollars through public hospital districts.
As the chief legal officer of the state, the Washington Attorney General provides official opinions on questions of law at the request of designated public officials on issues arising in the course of their duties. Opinions are processed through the Solicitor General’s Office.
The majority of legal advice given by the Attorney General’s Office in response to requests for opinions consists of informal opinions — letters that present the considered legal analysis of the Assistant Attorneys General who write them. Formal opinions, like the one issued today, typically are reserved for highly important issues of broad public significance.
A formal opinion constitutes the official view of the Attorney General’s Office.
Formal opinions involve a lengthy process of research and review. Each formal opinion is carefully drafted by the assigned attorney, then reviewed by the Opinions Editor, at least one other Assistant Attorney General and, finally, the Attorney General.
While these formal opinions are not legally binding, they have historically been given great weight by the courts.