Commentary: HB 2002 raising questions on all sides (April 26, 2023)

By Jami Cate

A major piece of legislation, sponsored by all but four Democrat legislators serving in Salem, is working its way through the Legislature.

On the afternoon of April 14, the Joint Committee on Ways and Means met to deliberate and vote on HB 2002.

With none of the joint committee members also serving on the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care (where HB 2002 had previously been heard), and with this being the sole opportunity for any senators to weigh in on the bill in a committee, it was reasonable that there were questions and clarifications needed regarding such an immense piece of legislation.

But after less than an hour of discussion, with only a few members having been able to ask questions of legislative counsel (the non-partisan lawyers who help develop and interpret bill concepts), yielding even less answers while raising additional questions, Co-Chair Rep. Tawna Sanchez put a stop to deliberation commenting, “Everyone knows what’s in this bill. We can see that because you are very well-prepared.”

If being prepared is asking questions that stump legislative counsel or suddenly enlighten – to the point of visible shock – the co-chairs, that the bill they admittedly helped craft will allow a 10-year-old to get an abortion without any parental consent, yes, please! Call us prepared.

A perfect example of this “preparedness” came when legislative counsel requested more time to respond to a pointed question about the bill’s applicability after they didn’t “know how to answer.”

‘Large Consequences’

House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, who had raised the question, replied by pointing out the obvious problem: “Unfortunately, I think we are being asked to make a decision on something [today] that has some pretty large consequences.”

Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp later reiterated this dilemma, when he asked why, if we know HB 2002 won’t be read on the House Floor until May 1, we were voting on it that day when we would have plenty of time to schedule more discussion and actually get answers to various policy issues. No answer was given.

Adding to the frustration that the ability to seek answers to questions was being halted by the co-chairs, is the procedural fact that bills being sent to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means bypass one-half of our bicameral Legislature.

Not Normal Process

A normal bill’s process would include being vetted by committees in both the House and the Senate, yet one of the most contentious bills of the session (if not the most contentious) will sidestep any committee process in the Senate for deliberation or input, and be passed with just a simple vote on the Senate floor.

And making the situation even more egregious for the limited number of senators serving on Ways and Means – a budget committee – is the fact that their only engagement on this bill will be in a committee that, as pointed out repeatedly by co-chairs, typically limits its discussions to financial matters not the larger, detailed policy discussions which are reserved for policy (not budget) committees.

It is poor form to say the least, for the Legislature to require legislators to vote on bills when it is impossible for them to make informed decision. When even the lawyers writing the bills are unclear of the impacts of the policy, how can the Legislature know if policy is in the best interest of Oregonians?

Crime No Longer?

One of the many questions that was never sufficiently answered by legislative counsel was why the bill repeals the crime of concealing the birth of an infant.

ORS 167.820 states: “A person commits the crime of concealing the birth of an infant if the person conceals the corpse of a newborn child with intent to conceal the fact of its birth or to prevent a determination of whether it was born dead or alive.”

During the public hearing in the House Committee on Behavioral Health and Health Care, rationale was given that wasn’t consistent with the vague reasoning provided during the work session in the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, and none of the offered reasonings of “antiquated language” or “not impacting other crimes which may be applicable” seemed a justification for repealing a law that could hinder the determination of if a larger crime (homicide) may have been committed.

Oregon has no time restraints on abortion, meaning even partial-birth abortion is legal in our state.

But once that baby is fully out of the birth canal, it is recognized as a person and is thus provided protections under existing law.

But if it is no longer required to report the birth of an infant, and is legal to conceal the corpse of an infant, then it is not at all a stretch to see the potential for a baby born alive to be left to die, or to be killed, and provide less tools for law enforcement to impose accountability for those crimes.

Paying Without Knowing?

Another unanswered question from legislative counsel, as well as experts from the Legislative Fiscal Office, is the seemingly obvious issue of who pays for the expansion of gender affirming care for minors – a vague, undefined term that will include anything from counseling sessions, to laser hair removal, to full sex-change operations.

Using an example of a 15-year-old child who wishes to exercise their newly minted access to gender-affirming care, and opts to undergo facial feminization surgery, HB 2002 recognizes the right of the minor to make this decision (without parental consent or even awareness) and also prohibits practitioners the right to deny such a cosmetic service as long as it is deemed “medically necessary.”

Assuming the minor is covered under their parents’ health insurance, who becomes legally responsible for the cost of the co-pay?

As 15-year-olds are not yet at the age of consent to be financially liable, the bill will likely go straight to the parents who had no say in becoming financially responsible for a surgery they may well not have even known about.

Another question that arose while seeking clarification from legislative counsel actually came from Co-Chair Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, who is a medical doctor by profession.

When the question was being asked regarding what age girls could receive abortions without parental consent, or what types of gender-affirming care children could receive at which ages without parental consent, Sen. Steiner felt confident to speak on behalf of her medical colleagues that it would be “scarcer than hen’s teeth” that doctors would find it is in the best interest of a minor patient to not include their parents in their medical decisions and care, and would actually “urge” the minors to grant consent to inform their parents.

But that then begs the question of why Oregon’s Legislature would be considering a law that would go against expert medical opinion of it being the best interest for children to have parental involvement in their health care.

When are children actually children, and when are they adults?

We continually see policy brought before the Legislature to increase the age of consent to reflect studies indicating brain development isn’t complete until the mid-20s, suggesting a lack of cognitive ability to truly understand the full ramifications of major decisions.

Even in HB 2005, another major bill being considered this session, policy seeks to increase the age to buy rifles and other long guns to 21 years of age, but in HB 2002, bill sponsors seek to remove age limits that require any guidance or input from parents that may help to make truly informed decisions regarding health care.

Separate or Not?

Sen. Steiner was adamant that “there is no desire to separate parents from this,” yet we would leave the decision to include parents –or not – entirely in the hands of scared, struggling children who are in desperate need of support.

The harsh reality is, HB 2002 gives children the right to sidestep their own families for the better auspices of the state, or in other words, removing the right of parents to even have a say over the best interest of their children during their formative years.

It seems even just these unanswered questions would be enough to cause our Legislature to put a pause on the passage of this bill and seek to understand the full impacts of what is being considered. Instead, the bill is being pushed through as a priority.

Born out of an entirely partisan “work group,” and circumventing the bicameral process of our Legislature, this bill inherently denies Legislators the ability to make a truly informed decision.

Debate Required in Process

Policies this vast should include legitimate debate, but that isn’t what we are seeing in Salem as moving a radical agenda takes precedent over process.

Sen. Lynn Findley summed up the crux of this bill as he was assured by Sen. Steiner that it is a tiny number of children who receive reproductive care without parental involvement.

He said, “I appreciate that the number is tiny, but if it’s your child, it’s a huge number.”

At the end of the day, HB 2002 seems more like a solution seeking a problem than policy that is truly needed for the best interest of Oregonians.

– Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, represents east Linn County in the Oregon House of Representatives.