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Mayoral candidates, here’s another issue: reproductive rights

birth control pills

Should the city provide taxpayer-funded subsidies to a health care provider who does not provide reproductive services? It's become an issue in the mayor's race. | Sun-Times file photo.

Reproductive rights are an emerging issue in Chicago’s mayoral race, sparked by the City Council’s recent, controversial approval of a $5.5 million tax-increment financing subsidy to Presence Health for its downtown headquarters.

The Catholic health system must hew to the church’s teachings. Opponents of the TIF subsidy argued that Presence routinely turns away women seeking services for birth control and abortions, and therefore should not receive taxpayer funds.

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Presence has agreed to revitalize its health centers in several Chicago neighborhoods, beefing up medical services for low-income families. Presence refers patients to other facilities for reproductive services, officials say.

Susana Mendoza, the mayoral hopeful and Illinois comptroller, is jumping into the fray. She does not support the Presence TIF and also vowed to deny city subsidies to companies that don’t support reproductive health care for their employees.

“I will not allow the use of city funds for TIF dollars and other support to go to companies that refuse to cover reproductive health care for their employees,” she told me Thursday. “I won’t allow our limited tax dollars to be used in a way … that will have an impact on the health care that every woman deserves.”

Women, particularly those in low-income communities, should not be forced to travel long distances or overcome other barriers to reproductive services, she added.

She will “scrub the books” to identify large companies and organizations that do not cover reproductive health care and deny them city subsidies.

Is that legal? “I will be consulting with legal counsel on what our options are.”

She also took a shot at Bill Daley, a fellow mayoral contender.

Daley was the White House chief of staff in 2011, when the Obama administration was grappling with a regulation in the Affordable Care Act that required religiously affiliated hospitals, charities and universities to provide birth control coverage for employees.

According to news reports, Daley, a lifelong Catholic, organized a meeting with President Barack Obama and then-New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan. Dolan and other Catholic leaders wanted an exemption to the contraceptives mandate.

“Democratic members of Congress who lobbied the White House said they believed that Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, William M. Daley, and his special assistant for religious affairs, Joshua DuBois, favored a broader exemption,” The New York Times reported. They eventually carved out a compromise.

Now Mendoza questions Daley’s commitment to reproductive rights. “You can’t claim to be pro-choice and then try to use your power to cut off access to reproductive choice for women as a chief of staff to the leader of the free world.”

In the run-up to its Jan. 18 mayoral forum, the ACLU of Illinois issued a questionnaire that asked: “Will you oppose the extension of TIF and other taxpayer-funded resources to expand and advance health care institutions that deny comprehensive reproductive health care services and information on the bases (sic) of religiously-mandated restrictions?”

Daley did not respond to the questionnaire. He did not attend the forum.

Daley is “unequivocally pro-choice,” spokesman Peter Cunningham said. But Cunningham declined to answer other questions about Daley’s role in the White House or his view on tying city funding to reproductive health services.

Is Daley ducking for fear of alienating the Catholics and conservative voters he needs to prevail in the Feb. 26 election?

This is an historic mayoral race, with four women mounting serious bids for City Hall. In Chicago, women cast 56 percent of the ballots in the November mid-term elections, according to the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners.

If Daley is dodging, will they let him get away with it?

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