Fighting Forward: Behind the Bill to Expand Reproductive Health Access in Illinois

Kay Steiger

After years of being on the defensive, a coalition of pro-choice groups in Illinois worked together to draft a comprehensive pro-active, pro-choice piece of legislation in their state.

After years of being on the defensive against bills like the
infamous
Born Alive Infant Protection Act and against continuous state
funding
of abstinence-only programming long after neighboring states abandoned
the programs, a coalition of pro-choice groups in Illinois worked together to
draft a comprehensive pro-active,
pro-choice piece of legislation in their state
. The legislation, which was
voted out of the state assembly’s House committee, never made it to a full
vote. But the work that went on behind the scenes suggests that this is the
beginning of a multi-year campaign to see this legislation passed in Illinois and and could lay
the groundwork for pro-choice legislation in other states.

At first glance, the legislation proposed in Illinois, called the
Reproductive Health and Access Act, looks like a Freedom of Choice Act, aimed at codifying Roe v. Wade in
state statute. The proposed legislation affirms that the state should not "deny
or interfere a pregnant woman’s right terminate a pregnancy" and would ensure state funding of abortion services, even while the Hyde Amendment remains in place. The legislation also ensures access to
contraception, as well as the right to refuse contraception (in response to histories of coercive and forced sterilization for women of color and women deemed unfit to reproduce).

Early members of the coalition, which has been spearheaded by Planned
Parenthood Illinois and Illinois ACLU, began
their work with meetings in Chicago and Springfield in the fall
of 2007, where they debated what the legislation should cover, how it should be
phrased, and how to get it passed. Following the 2008 election, they
conducted focus groups and polls into early
January. "It was that broad-ranging access that got early polling in the
60-70 percent across the board," said Lorie Chaiten, director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Rights Project in
Illinois
. "It was really the whole continuum of choices that people
supported very strongly."

But the proposed legislation doesn’t stop at access to contraception
and abortion. It goes on to demand that "all Illinois public schools shall
offer medically accurate, age appropriate, comprehensive sexual health
education" and that any provider conscience clause in the state be amended so
that a patient can still receive the full range of reproductive options
regardless of the provider’s personal or religious objections. The reason for
including this last component is that Illinois has a version of the conscience
clause on the books that was passed in 1977; in its most extreme reading, it
forbids employers from even asking employees if they plan to refuse service.
The law is for "people who want for there to be an absolute right for the
refusing physician or health care provider," Chaiten said. "So the HHS regs, in
some ways, bring federal law to where some people argue the Illinois law already is."

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It was that last part that got the coalition into the most
trouble. The Catholic Church’s Cardinal George wrote a letter (PDF)
objecting to the bill, claiming that the passage of such legislation would
cause Catholic hospitals to close and Catholic doctors and nurses to flee the
state. Similar objections were raised when Illinois passed a requirement for emergency
rooms to provide information about emergency contraception to sexual assault
victims in 2002, said Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Personal PAC. Such dire
predictions turned out to be false.  But the opposition’s rhetoric worked best on legislators with close ties to the Catholic Church.

Some local Catholic Church leaders put up opposition to the
bill, even campaigning against it on Sunday mornings and gathering signatures
at church, but the opposition wasn’t universal. "Our steering committee for the
campaign includes a pro-choice nun," Chaiten said. "In fact, one of my
colleagues who has been out meeting with different organizations, met with a
coalition of pro-choice nuns. Not just pro-choice [but also] questioning
nuns walked through the legislation and talked through it."

The coalition, made up of community groups like Mujeres
Latinas en Acción, Black Women
for Reproductive Justice
, and the Chicago Abortion Fund, along with women’s
health care providers and the big reproductive rights groups, held a lobby day
that they considered a success. "More voices were included in this
discussion….diverse voices that served many different populations around the
city and state," said Gaylon Alcaraz, executive director of the Chicago
Abortion Fund, in an email. "Another positive that came out of this is because
of these diverse voices, legislators, the public and media had the opportunity
to hear from the ‘unusual suspects’ and not just Planned Parenthood. The
feedback we received from legislators was overwhelmingly positive. They
were happy to see women of color speaking out about reproductive health and
justice. They felt that Planned Parenthood shouldn’t always be at their
doors bringing the same message every year."

It’s a sentiment echoed by Planned Parenthood. "It was so
critical to these legislators and it was so important that they saw this whole
long list of organizational support it really made a difference to them.
Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, we have lobbyists down there everyday," said
Beth Kanter, senior vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood
Illinois. "What made a difference to these legislators was seeing
the activists down there and seeing the other organizations down there who
weren’t typically there. I think that that moved people."

The bill ended up gaining support from 32 co-sponsors, 20 of
which were female legislators. "So many groups did so much to push this issue
forward and get it on the radar screen," Kanter said. "For example, Mujeres
Latinas en Acción did a great job reaching out to a lot of the Latino
legislators. Toni Bond’s group, Black Women for Reproductive Justice, reached
out to all of the African-American members and sent a letter and
lobbied, which was so unbelievably helpful."

Even though the legislation didn’t come to a vote this
session, the coalition is continuing to work in the state and plan on
introducing the legislation again next year. "We’re going to keep fighting the
good fight on this," Kanter said. "We continue to have a hard fight ahead of us
but we’re committed to this bill’s passage because the women and men of the
state of Illinois
deserve a right to make choices about their reproductive health."

It’s a battle that will be along one. "One thing we really
have to focus on in the next nine months before we go into the next legislative
session is to try to really mobilize the support around the state," ACLU’s
Chaiten said. Cosgrove admits that there are still many roadblocks in
their path. "From my standpoint we need more pro-choice legislators. We need a
lot more education with people around the issues that we’re talking about." It
won’t be an easy battle, but if this coalition is successful in enacting
pro-choice legislation, it could be a model for other states to follow — instead
of working to deflect anti-choice legislation year after year.

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