Washington legalized abortions within the first months of pregnancy with Referendum 20 in 1970 — three years before Roe v. Wade — becoming the first state to do so by referendum. Hawaii legalized it that same year.
The 1970 law came with the caveat that a woman had to seek permission from her husband to get an abortion. In 1973, this condition was superseded by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
The first major challenge to Roe v. Wade came with Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The case covered Pennsylvania’s amendments to its abortion control laws in 1988 and 1989 that required minors to get parental consent and married women to notify their husbands.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court could decide on this, Washingtonians passed Initiative 120, the Reproductive Privacy Act in 1991.
Seven months later, a federal appeals court, while reaffirming Roe, upheld Pennsylvania’s abortion control laws, except the requirement to notify the husband.
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Since 1991, Washington has enacted a range of statutes focused on reproductive health. Most notably, in 2018, Washington passed the Reproductive Parity Act, requiring insurance plans to cover abortions and abortion care if they cover maternity services.
The law also requires a review of existing data on disparities affecting the reproductive health of people from marginalized communities.
Here’s a look back at how reproductive rights evolved in the state:
Washington’s history of reproductive rights
The Washington Territorial Legislature makes it illegal to abort a “quick” fetus (fetus with movement usually in the fourth month of pregnancy) unless it is necessary to save the life of the mother.
Washington places a near-total ban on abortion. The law makes it a crime for anyone, including the prospective mother, to terminate any pregnancy unless necessary to save the life of the mother.
Following a string of abortion-related deaths, the Citizens’ Abortion Study Group comes together in the office of Samuel Goldenberg, a Seattle pyschologist. Early members include Lee Minto, executive director of Planned Parenthood of Seattle-King County until 1993; the Rev. Everett J. Jensen, general secretary of the State Council of Churches; and Republican State Sen. Joel Pritchard of Seattle. It later evolves into the Washington Citizens for Abortion Reform, or WCAR.
WCAR drafts legislation that is introduced in the House and Senate. William Chatalas, a Seattle Democrat, sponsors it in the House, Pritchard in the Senate. It also has the support of Gov. Dan Evans, a Republican. Nevertheless, it is unsuccessful.
Nov. 3, 1970
During a special session of the Legislature, Sen. Pritchard returns with similar legislation to vote on. The judiciary committee adds to the new bill the condition that a woman must have the consent of her husband or legal guardian (if a minor) to seek an abortion. Referendum 20 is approved, legalizing abortion before four months of pregnancy.
Jan. 22, 1973
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision on Roe v. Wade, affirms a woman’s right to have an abortion under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which recognizes her right to privacy. The decision gives women the right to an abortion throughout pregnancy and defines different levels of state interest for regulating abortion in the second and third trimesters. Roe v. Wade supersedes Referendum 20 in Washington state.
Nov. 5, 1991
Minto of Seattle files 242,004 signatures to qualify Initiative 120 to be sent to the Legislature. When the Legislature does not take action, the measure is placed on the ballot per the state constitution. With 50.04% of 1,509,402 votes cast, the Reproductive Privacy Act is passed, codifying Roe v. Wade into state law.
April 26, 1993
In response to a series of disruptive clinic protests by anti-abortion rights organization Operation Rescue, the Washington Legislature passes RCW 9A.50.020, making it illegal to interfere with access at a health care facility or disrupt its normal functioning.
The Comprehensive Sex Education bill is passed, requiring all public schools, effective 2022-23, to provide “medically and scientifically accurate, age-appropriate, and inclusive” sexual education, as well as instruction about preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.
April 16, 2021
The Reproductive Parity Act is amended to ensure that that if a student health plan provides coverage for maternity care, it must also provide coverage for abortions, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to clarify which states were first to legalize abortion.
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