Downstate Danville backs abortion pills ban, defying legal risks

The city council bans shipping and mailing of abortion pills in a vote Tuesday in defiance of state law protecting the procedure. Abortion advocates are mulling a challenge.

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Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul speaks at a special session for reproductive health rights after news of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Friday, June 24, 2022. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul at a special session on reproductive rights in 2022. Raoul on Wednesday warned Danville officials that state law barred passage of the ordinance and that their actions posed “considerable legal liability and risk.”

Brian Rich/Sun-Times (file)

Downstate Danville on Tuesday banned the mailing or shipping of abortion pills, defying the state’s Democratic attorney general and the American Civil Liberties Union, who have repeatedly warned that the move violates Illinois law’s protection of abortion as a fundamental right.

The ordinance passed the City Council in Danville, near Illinois’ eastern border with Indiana, by one vote, a tiebreaker cast by Mayor Rickey Williams.

This is not the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned that local abortion restrictions have been adopted. Five local governments in Democrat-controlled New Mexico passed them, but the state’s supreme court in March blocked enforcement for now. And last year, a town in Ohio decided to rewrite its restrictions rather than defend them in court.

It’s not clear how Danville officials intend to enforce the ordinance. Illinois law has long shielded abortion rights. In 2019, Democratic lawmakers and Gov. J.B. Pritzker went further, specifying that decisions about contraception and abortion are a fundamental right in the state.

The ordinance proposed in Danville followed public reports that an Indiana clinic planned to open a facility in the city, which is about 6 miles from the border. Indiana Republicans voted in August to ban abortion, but a legal challenge pending before the Indiana Supreme Court has kept the ban on hold since September.

In a statement released after Tuesday’s vote, Ameri Klafeta, director of the Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project at the ACLU of Illinois, said Danville officials had approved an “unlawful and unenforceable ordinance.”

“Illinois has explicitly protected the right to abortion in this state, free from governmental interference, and Danville’s vote today is in clear violation of that law,” Klafeta said. “We are evaluating next steps to challenge this unlawful ordinance.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul separately warned Danville officialsthat state law clearly prevented the ordinance’s passage and said its approval risked “considerable legal liability and expenses.”

In a statement Wednesday, Raoul said: “After stepping up to the brink of open defiance of state law, I am relieved that the city of Danville heard the concerns I raised in the letter I sent earlier this week and those raised by fellow advocates. Ultimately, after a last-minute amendment, the City Council decided to pass an amended ordinance that, by its own terms, is not in effect and will not take effect.

“Even if the city’s ordinance is merely symbolic, I do not want it to instill fear and confusion. Let me be clear: all residents of Illinois continue to enjoy the fundamental rights guaranteed to them under state law, and my office will continue to ensure that all localities in the state understand that access to reproductive health care is a fundamental right in Illinois.

Photos and video footage showed opponents and supporters gathered outside Danville’s city hall building and filling the room where council members heard public comments during a four-hour meeting ahead of the tight vote.

Supportive members of the council amended the proposal Tuesday — adding that it would only take effect “when the city of Danville obtains a declaratory judgment from a court that it may enact and enforce” the ordinance, according to the Danville Commercial-News.

The city’s corporation counsel, though, warned that change would not shield the city from legal action.

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