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The Abortion Debate Is About To Heat Up In Illinois

Illinois House Democratic Caucus
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat, introduced a bill that some say, if approved, would make Illinois the state with the most far-reaching abortion rights law.

Credit Daisy Contreras / NPR Illinois
NPR Illinois
Abortion rights supporters and others rally at the state Capitol in 2017.

Illinois could become the most progressive state in the nation on abortion rights if a proposed bill is approved this year.

“The Illinois legislation would, if enacted, put Illinois at the forefront of protecting abortion and reproductive health and really protect those rights,” said Elizabeth Nash of the Guttmacher Institute,  which tracks reproductive issues.

Nash said Illinois’ current abortion laws are relatively moderate compared to the rest of the nation. The proposed law here is much broader than one adopted in New York last year. That state’s law allows abortion up until viability and after, when a patient’s life is at risk

The new Illinois bill would cover reproductive health care, in addition to abortion, including pregnancy, miscarriage, contraception, sterilization, preconception care and any related services. It would repeal a mid ‘90s ban on partial birth abortion and require private health insurers to cover abortions.

Like New York’s law, the Illinois plan would lift a requirement that doctors be the only ones to perform abortions. It would allow other kinds of qualified health care providers, like nurse practitioners, to do the procedure. It would also bring up-to-date the 1975 Illinois abortion law that contained criminal penalties for doctors performing abortions. That could come into play should a conservative U.S. Supreme Court decide to overturn Roe v. Wade, the federal case that removed state prohibitions on abortion.

“People everywhere should have access to the full range of reproductive health and have that available without barriers. This is a healthcare procedure. This is about what the patient and the doctor decide is best for them, and, you know, if that's considered a progressive notion, so be it,’’ said state Representative Kelly Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat and the bill sponsor.

She says laws on the books about abortion need to be modernized. “The very idea that a health care procedure is discussed and regulated under the criminal code is ridiculous.”

The far reach of the bill has fueled outrage of anti-abortion organizations, such as the Thomas More Society and the Catholic Conference of Illinois. What supporters of the bill call comprehensive, abortion opponents call extreme.  

“We don’t want to be known as the abortion capital of America,’’ said former Republican Illinois lawmaker Peter Breen, who is an attorney with the nonprofit Thomas More Society. The group has gone to court trying to block laws like 2017’s House Bill 40, which required the state to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients. It also updated a 1975 law to prevent it from triggering an abortion ban in the state should Roe V. Wade be overturned. 

“The abortion bills pending in the Illinois General Assembly would eliminate all restrictions on abortions up until the moment of birth. So it would turn Illinois into a third-trimester abortion destination that could also wipe away our parental involvement requirements,’’ said Breen. He’s referring to another bill pending that would repeal the 1995 Parental Notification Act, which, because of court challenges, has been enforced only since 2013.

Credit The Chicago Catholic
Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, with Cardinal Blase Cupich.

“What that bill is doing is it's making it virtually impossible for the state to put any restrictions on abortion procedures because it says … that there's a state interest in abortion being a fundamental right,’ said Bob Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “So if any restrictions are passed, I'm sure a court would say, ‘Well, if it's a fundamental right, how can you impede upon that fundamental right’? That's very alarming.”

According to the Guttmacher Institute, abortion rights before the 13th week of pregnancy have been consistently upheld by courts throughout the nation. But a third of the states have bans on abortion after 20 weeks. So far, according to Guttmacher, courts have struck down those laws that have barred the procedure at a specific week or trimester or that have extremely narrow health exceptions. But President Trump’s administration has made it clear it will continue its effort to appoint additional conservative Supreme Court justices who are more likely to overturn Roe.

“I believe our rights as women are being threatened by a federal administration that has made it clear it wants women jailed if they have abortions. I want to make sure that women have access to full reproductive rights,’’ said Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat who is Senate sponsor of the Reproductive Health Act.

Attorney Amy Meek with the ACLU of Illinois says the bill is intended to say reproductive health care is health care. “Throughout a woman's pregnancy, decisions about how to proceed should be guided by the woman's health in consultation with the individual health care provider and shouldn't be subject to political interference.”

The opponents say passage of the bill would create conflicts between this law and right of conscience refusals.

Bob Gilligan of the Catholic Conference says, “I think one of the concerns we have about this bill is for people who know that this is the taking of life, we’re getting crowded out of the picture here. So doctors and nurses who don't want to participate in this today, is there any space left for them to be doctors and nurses in the state anymore?"

He said the same concern applies to anti-abortion employers providing insurance and employees paying premiums for those plans.

According to the Catholic Conference, the bill would compromise right of conscience protections because it would repeal the Abortion Performance Refusal Act, which “safeguards the licenses of hospitals, doctors, nurses, or any other medical personnel who refuse to permit, recommend, perform or assist in the performance of an abortion.” The Abortion Performance Refusal Act also protects hospitals, doctors, nurses and any medical personnel from any sort of damages from refusing to participate in an abortion.’”

But a spokesman for the ACLU says its interpretation of the comprehensive abortion bill is that it would cover moral or religious objections through the 2016 Right of Conscience Act. That law allows health care providers — or employers — with religious or moral objections to refuse to provide or pay for abortion or any other health care procedure. That’s as long as the patient’s health is not endangered and they provide information on where else abortions can be offered.

The anti-abortion groups have a lot of work ahead to combat this bill. They say they will plead their case with taxpayers, voters and the legislature itself. There are other abortion bills up for consideration, but none are so all encompassing.

On Wednesday, the Reproductive Health Care Act had 39 House co-sponsors, with 60 votes needed to approve the bill in that chamber. (There had been 42, but three removed themselves after initially signing on board.) Bush said she had only begun to round up sponsors in the Senate, where abortion legislation has recently had more favorable reception.

Gov. J.B. Pritzer is on record as saying he wants Illinois to be the most progressive state in the nation on reproductive health care. A spokesman reiterated that this week, and said,  “The governor looks forward to reviewing the legislation and working with advocates to protect women’s rights.”

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Illinois Issues is in-depth reporting and analysis that takes you beyond the headlines to provide a deeper understanding of our state. Illinois Issues is produced by NPR Illinois in Springfield.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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