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Moral qualms no, midwives yes — legislators send Pritzker bills licensing midwives, barring moral objections to COVID-19 requirements

While a measure to license certified midwives passed the House easily, another that would block state residents from using their moral beliefs as a reason to refuse to comply with COVID-19 requirements in their workplace was sent to the governor’s desk only after two days of heated debate.

State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, stands on the floor of the Illinois Senate in May.
State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, stands on the floor of the Illinois Senate in May.
Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register via AP file

State legislators late Thursday passed a measure blocking the use of moral objections as a reason to refuse to comply with COVID-19 requirements in the workplace — over Republican objections that the state was embarking on a dangerous path, and “we don’t know where it ends.”

The state Senate voted 31 to 24, with four senators not voting, to send legislation amending the state’s Health Care Right of Conscience Act to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

State Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, said the nearly quarter century old law as written is “broadly drafted” and is being “construed” in a way that’s not in line with its original intent.

Democrats contend the 1998 act was originally designed to protect doctors, nurses and other health care providers who refused to perform medical procedures — such as abortions — that they’re opposed to on a moral or religious basis.

But Democratic state legislators and members of the Pritzker administration argue the act has been misused by some to refuse to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other efforts to curb the pandemic.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall Monday morning.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 members and their supporters protest against COVID-19 mandates outside City Hall Monday morning.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

The amendment that has now passed both chambers is intended to make clear that public officials and private companies can impose COVID-19 requirements as part of conditions of employment, potentially shielding those employers from legal challenges they might face after imposing those obligations.

While the language of the amendment no longer clearly says employees can be terminated for complying with vaccine mandates or other requirements, it does allow for the conditions to be enforced. The language of the bill does not elaborate on how the measure might be implemented.

Republicans in the chamber worried that the measure would infringe on state residents’ rights to refuse to comply on religious grounds. People can still request exemptions from vaccinations for medical or religious reasons under the legislation.

State Sen. John Curran, R-Downers Grove, warned against passing the measure, saying “we go down this path — we don’t know where it ends.”

“Today we’re diminishing the protections in the workplace for a minor medical procedure — this is my objection, it’s not about vaccinations,” Curran said. “I’m vaccinated, that’s not the issue here. [The issue] is diminishment of protections in the workplace for workers.

“Today, this is the issue in the future, it could be a diminishment of protections that allows one to take a prayer break in the workplace, allows one to wear religious garment, religious headdress in the workplace.”

Shortly after the state Senate gave its sign off, Pritzker lauded the amendment’s passage, saying the state has “effective tools to fight this pandemic — namely, vaccines, masks and testing — and all of our communities are safer when we use the public health and workplace safety protocols we know to work.”

“The Health Care Right of Conscience Act was never meant to put vulnerable people in harm’s way,” the governor said. “This legislation clarifies existing law’s intent without infringing on federal protections.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks about COVID-19 during a news conference at the Thompson Center in August.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks about COVID-19 during a news conference at the Thompson Center in August.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

“Ultimately, this means we can keep kids in school, businesses open, neighbors safe, and continue on the path to bring this pandemic to an end.”

Earlier Thursday, members of the House voted overwhelmingly to send legislation creating a licensing process for midwives and an Illinois midwifery board to Pritzker’s desk on their final scheduled day of fall veto session.

That measure passed much more easily.

In the House, legislators voted 114 to 1, with three not voting, to allow for certified midwives to go through the licensing process. The bill creates standards for that qualification and sets education and training criteria for those seeking to be licensed as a certified professional in the field.

The state doesn’t currently recognize certified professional midwives. Under state law, midwifery now requires a nursing degree. Registered nurses who’ve undergone advanced studies or completed certain clinical practice requirements can be recognized by the state as nurse-midwives.

Certified nurse-midwives provide women with primary health care, including gynecological exams, delivering babies and prenatal and postnatal care, according to the Illinois Affiliate of the American College of Nurse-Midwives.

A sponsor of the licensing measure, state Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, said she and others had worked for over 20 years on the measure, and passing the bill would allow women more choice in their health care decisions.

State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, speaks on the House floor last month.
State Rep. Robyn Gabel, D-Evanston, speaks on the House floor Wednesday night.
Blue Room Stream file

Legislators in the Senate also advanced a measure supported by Pritzker to encourage electric vehicle manufacturers, businesses and supply chain companies to “invest, locate and stay in the state of Illinois,” state Sen. Steve Stadelman, D-Rockford, said while introducing the legislation.

Senators voted 55 to 0 to send the measure to the House, where the measure was up for debate late Thursday.

A measure to allow people in prisons the right to vote while they’re serving their sentences fell just three votes short of the 60 votes needed to pass Thursday.

That legislation, sponsored by state Rep. LaShawn Ford, D-Chicago, would allow a person convicted of a felony or otherwise serving a sentence in a state correctional facility to have their right to vote restored and “shall be eligible to vote not later than 14 days following his or her conviction or not later than five days before the first election following the person’s confinement.”

The West Side Democrat postponed consideration on the measure, a parliamentary move that will allow the legislation to be voted on again at a later date.