Pritzker signs abortion measure he says makes Illinois most ‘progressive’ on issue

The bill’s House sponsor declared the state is “building a firewall around Illinois” as neighboring states work to restrict abortions. But anti-abortion groups argue Illinois will become “an abortion destination for the country.”

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Reproductive Health Act during a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center, Wednesday morning, June 12, 2019.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Reproductive Health Act during a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center, Wednesday morning, June 12, 2019.

John L. Alexander/For the Sun-Times

Bucking a national trend to curtail access to abortions, Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Wednesday signed a bill that he said allows Illinois to make “history once again” and show that “we trust women.”

“If you believe in standing up for women’s fundamental rights, Illinois is a beacon of hope in the heart of this nation,” Pritzker declared, shortly before signing the bill to protect women’s reproductive health care rights should Roe v. Wade be overturned.

But anti-abortion groups, such as the Thomas More Society, had a different view, claiming Illinois will become “an abortion destination for the country.”

Members of the group were among the protesters who gathered in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center and held a news conference after the bill-signing ceremony, calling the new law “horrific legislation.”

Pritzker has vowed to make Illinois the “most progressive” in the nation when it comes to reproductive health care rights.

Supporters have said the legislation he signed Wednesday is essential, worrying that women will not have access to reproductive health care here should the Supreme Court decision be overturned.

“Today Illinois is making history once again,” Pritzker said at the signing. “We proudly proclaim that we trust women.”

Anti-abortion protesters at the Chicago Cultural Center

Anti-abortion protesters gathered in the lobby of the Chicago Cultural Center Wednesday morning, where Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act.

Tina Sfondeles/Sun-Times

Abortion-rights supporters say doctors who perform abortions, and counselors who counsel residents about reproductive health, will not see an immediate effect when they head to work on Thursday.

“They’re going to wake up and practice medicine the same way they always did,” said Colleen Connell, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.

“But politically speaking, there’s a real reason for this,” Connell added. “I think what is profound about our law is the fact that it recognizes the right of every person to make fundamental decisions about reproduction, without government interference.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a bill at the at Chicago Cultural Center in 2019.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Reproductive Health Act at the at Chicago Cultural Center Wednesday morning.

Sun-Times file

State Sen. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said women serving their first terms in the Legislature were key to pass the bill.

So far, nine states have passed measures to ban abortion or forbid it at a certain point during the pregnancy. None of those laws have taken effect, as many face legal challenges.

“Abortion bans don’t ban abortion. They just endanger women,” Pritzker said. “And none more than rural women, and poor women, and women of color.”

So in a big sense, Illinois is bucking the trend — as did New York and Vermont, which also passed legislation to protect abortion rights.

But Pritzker is moving the fight to the Heartland.

“Nobody in the Midwest has proactively passed anything to secure abortion rights,” said Brigid Leahy, senior director for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “The closest thing is that Kansas, just in the last couple of months, the Supreme Court made a ruling that abortion is protected under the state constitution.”

The Illinois measure repeals several decades-old abortion-related provisions in state law. But it also clarifies the definition of viability and health. The Reproductive Health Act includes language that treats abortion as health care.

“What a difference a governor makes,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, who sponsored the bill in the Illinois House and attended the bill-signing.

Cassidy, D-Chicago, added that the new abortion law is about “building a firewall around Illinois to protect access.”

The Illinois law, effective immediately, repeals the state’s current abortion law, adopted in 1975. In its place is language in which certain elements are removed, such as: spousal consent; criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions; waiting periods; and other restrictions on facilities where abortions are performed. The legislation also clarifies the definitions of viability and health.

At the bill-signing Wednesday, the ACLU’s Connell said the new law is “about the fundamental right to birth control, abortions and maternity care.”

A new provision says abortions can be performed after viability only if necessary to protect the health or life of the pregnant woman. It also defines the viability as the fetus having a significant likelihood of survival outside the uterus without extraordinary medical measures.

Many provisions of the state’s 1975 abortion law have been enjoined by the courts, including criminal penalties for doctors who offered abortion care. The new law also would repeal the Partial Birth Abortion ban, which imposed restrictions on doctors performing abortions on women who were 20 weeks pregnant or later. The ACLU says about 90 percent of all abortions are performed within the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.

Partial-birth abortions remain banned by federal law, except to save the life of the mother. The new measure does not change factors around partial birth abortions.

The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion nonprofit, said the law now makes Illinois “the most extreme pro-abortion state in the nation.”

“While a growing number of states are working to advance popular pro-life laws, Illinois is trying to outdo New York’s abortion extremism — and unborn children and their mothers will pay the price,” said Jill Stanek, the group’s national campaign chair. “Americans of every political persuasion are appalled by these attempts to expand abortion on demand through the moment of birth and even infanticide, and that in turn is driving pro-life momentum around the country. There is no pride or glory in being the most extreme pro-abortion state in the nation.”

There have been 53 abortion restrictions enacted in the United States this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization in support of abortion rights. 

Supporters react as Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Reproductive Health Act during a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Supporters react as Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs the Reproductive Health Act during a ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center.

John L. Alexander/For the Sun-Times

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee in May signed a bill that would ban abortions in the state should the U.S. Constitution be changed or if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota have passed similar laws.

In Iowa, a law passed in 2018 that would have banned abortions if a heartbeat is detected was struck down by a county district judge. Iowa bans abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

In Kentucky, lawmakers passed a “heartbeat” bill in March — banning abortions between six and eight weeks — but a temporary restraining order was issued by a federal judge.

And in Missouri, abortions are banned at or beyond eight weeks. The new law would go into effect on Aug. 28 should it survive any legal challenges. The only abortion clinic in that state is fighting a licensing issue. A judge this week blocked officials from closing the clinic, for now. Missouri would become the only state without an abortion clinic since it became legal, should that center close.

In Wisconsin, lawmakers sent four abortion-related bills to Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, and he’s expected to veto them. One bill would impose criminal penalties on doctors who fail to give medical care to babies born during an abortion attempt, which opponents have said is a rare situation.

And in an Indiana case, the U.S. Supreme Court late last month turned down an appeal that would have reinstated a law that outlaws abortions based on race, sex or disability. But it also upheld an Indiana law that requires abortion providers to bury or cremate fetal remains. That law was signed by then-Gov. Mike Pence, now vice president. 

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