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In Washington, a move to preserve choice

Bill requires abortion coverage

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The legality or availability of abortion is under challenge from Arkansas to North Dakota this spring as conservative state legislatures throw down roadblocks. But here in this corner of the Far West, winds may blow the other way.

Washington already was the only state ever to have legalized abortion through a popular vote — in 1970, three years before the Supreme Court defined the national legal terrain on the issue in Roe v. Wade — and is now seriously debating a law that would require health insurers to pay for an elective abortion.

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It is a lonely conversation, national advocates for abortion choice said.

Conservative hostility to the changes looming under the federal health care overhaul law, formally the Affordable Care Act, and a widespread belief that a majority on the Supreme Court might be ready to overturn the Roe v. Wade precedent, the advocates said, have combined to rekindle a brushfire that mostly only blazes in one direction.

An influx of Republicans swept into many state houses starting with midterm elections in 2010.

‘‘States are overwhelmingly ruled by antichoice politicians,’’ Donna Crane, policy director for the National Abortion Rights Action League, which is based in Washington, D.C. ‘‘The Affordable Care Act has probably added some extra octane to the efforts from our opponents.’’

The result, she said, is an ‘‘uptick in bills.’’

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The bill here, also known as the Reproductive Parity Act, passed in the Democrat-controlled state House of Representatives in February, 53 to 43. A backer of the bill in the Senate said Monday at a packed public hearing before the Senate Health Care Committee that 25 senators out of 49 have signed on to vote yes if the measure reaches the floor.

But people on both sides of the question said the crux of the bill came down to choice — a word intertwined with the language of abortion for many years, now loaded with new shades of meaning about fine-print insurance coverage, mandates, and fairness.

Opponents said the bill would require a provision of health insurance coverage — paying for abortions — that many people do not want and do not want to be part of, even by doing business with a company that provides it.

Supporters said that since the federal health care law allowed insurance carriers to opt out of covering abortion, many might well do so when the law kicks in next January unless the state steps in now with new rules.

The bill was amended in the House to provide for a religious conscience exemption for an employer or insurance carrier that opposes abortion, but opponents said the language was vague and contradictory and would provide no protection, or could lead to expensive lawsuits against those who decide to opt out for religious reasons.

‘‘This is also a bullying bill’’ that forces people who oppose abortion to be part of a system that permits abortions, said Angela Connelly, president of the Washington Women’s Network, which Connelly described as an advocacy group working on issues of human trafficking to elder abuse. ‘‘We cannot insist on one agenda oppressing another.’’

The chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, Elaine Rose, said the question was about maintaining access to abortion that Washingtonians have said repeatedly, dating to 1970, that they want and expect.

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