Pritzker moves to make abortion more accessible to people in prisons

In removing fees and promising access, Illinois joins a handful of states providing abortions for incarcerated people.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks at a press conference discussing Illinois’ role as a critical access point for abortion care in the Midwest. Tuesday, August 30, 2022.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Gov. J.B. Pritzker pledged to remove a barrier to abortion for people in prison after a WBEZ investigation found incarcerated people had to pay for the procedure and the wages of the correctional officer required to accompany them to appointments outside the prison.

“Moving forward, abortion procedures and their associated expenses will not be covered by incarcerated women,” IDOC spokesperson Naomi Puzello wrote in a statement announcing the policy change. “Those who previously paid for expenses will be reimbursed.”

Advocates for abortion rights were surprised and elated. “With access to abortion care under attack across the nation, Illinois should ensure that every person in need of abortion care, including those in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, has unfettered access to this critical health care,” said Emily Hirsch, a legal fellow at the ACLU of Illinois. “We applaud the Governor’s Office for taking an important step toward that goal.”

Puzello said the new guidelines were implemented immediately and that Wexford, the company that is contracted by the state to provide healthcare in prisons, and all impacted facilities have been notified of the change. However, the corrections department did not specify how access will be ensured, how reimbursements will be provided or how incarcerated pregnant people are being made aware of their rights.

Illinois is not the first state to make abortion more accessible to those in prison. California covers the cost of abortion in prisons and jails according to the ACLU of Northern California. In New Jersey, state law requires the corrections department to arrange for an abortion “without undue delay.” Oregon’s written policy states that abortion services “shall be provided in a non-judgmental fashion,” and incarcerated patients, whether in a community clinic or with an OB-GYN provider, will not incur any costs associated with an abortion. In response to a freedom of information request the Oregon Department of Corrections reported that 99 people in its care were provided with fully funded abortions between 2016 and September of 2022.

By contrast, other states, like Utah and Missouri do not provide abortions to incarcerated people and are not responsible for any fees associated with the termination of a pregnancy, including transportation. Utah reported zero abortions in prisons since 2012 and Missouri reported three since 2015.

Moving forward, advocates in Illinois are optimistic that Pritzker’s pledge to remove barriers to abortion access will inspire other states to implement similar policies.

“I am hopeful that this will help a lot of people access care in ways that was previously impossible, or previously extremely detrimental or traumatizing,” said Alicia Hurtado with the Chicago Abortion Fund. “I hope to continue to see other states implement the same type of support to people as well as think about how we can minimize the impact and minimize the control that the criminal legal system has on people’s health care outcomes.”

In the statement from the Department of Corrections, Pritzker’s administration also issued an apology for the state’s treatment of incarcerated people seeking access to abortion services. “We recognize that this policy likely caused additional trauma, and we sincerely apologize for any additional harm it created.”

Sam Dier is a Luminary Fellow for WBEZ. This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Sam volunteers with Northwestern University’s Prison Education Program. Follow them @diersam.

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