Our Bags Are Packed: A Reproductive Health Roadtrip Through Illinois

Allie Carter

We’re going on the road to interview people in Illinois about obstacles accessing reproductive health services, and make sure the media and the state legislature take note.  

Rewire is partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union to publish an ongoing travel diary written by ACLU Illinois’ Allison Carter and Khadine Bennett as they travel through the state interviewing people about their experiences accessing reproductive health care.

I got married at the beginning of July. The church, the flowers, the family, the cake and champagne, the whole deal. Why, you ask, am I now planning to spend 2 straight weeks on the road in Illinois traveling with someone other than my new spouse? Why am I leaving the love of my life at home in Chicago to eat food from truck stops, sleep in unfamiliar beds and talk to strangers?

Two reasons: corn dogs and Chlamydia.

The corn dogs should be obvious. Springfield, Illinois, in addition to being our state’s capitol, is home to the Cozy Dog Drive Inn – the birth place of the corn dog. I am a huge fan of corn dogs; delicious and portable, they are nature’s perfect food. And the highways and byways of Illinois are one of the best places to find them in their native habitat.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Chlamydia is a different matter. In 2007, Illinois had more than 55 thousand cases of Chlamydia – at a rate nearly double the national average. Moreover, those cases were disproportionately in adolescents and young adults. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 34 percent of cases were in youths ages 15 to 19 and 36 percent in young people ages 20 to 24.

Those statistics ought to make Illinois lawmakers stand up and take notice. According to SEICUS, in that same year, “The [Illinois] Department of Human Services and community-based organizations in Illinois received approximately $8,815,804 in federal funds for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs…” Since 1998, rates of Chlamydia have risen every year in Illinois. From 32,861 reported cases in 1998 to 55,470 in 2007. During those same years, Illinois has spent tens of millions of dollars on failed abstinence-only education programs that don’t prevent the spread of disease or unwanted teen pregnancies and don’t equip our youth to make healthy decisions and protect themselves.

Even if a young person manages to receive medically-accurate sexual health information, there’s no guarantee that they can access the reproductive health care services they need throughout their lives. Women in Illinois, especially outside of the Chicago area, can face enormous barriers to getting reproductive health services. They may have to travel great distances to find a pharmacy which will fill their birth control prescription. They may find that their local doctor or hospital will no longer provide abortions or emergency contraception because they’ve merged with a religious hospital network. They may have to pay out of increasingly empty pockets because Medicaid doesn’t adequately cover the reproductive health services that they need.

We’re going on the road to talk to the men and women who face these challenges in accessing or providing reproductive health services and information. We’re trying to put a human face on those challenges so that they cannot be ignored by the media or the state legislature.   We’re trying to make the case for why Illinois so desperately needs comprehensive reform of laws regarding reproductive health and access. That’s why I am delighted to spend the next two weeks on the road in Illinois.

That, plus the corn dogs.


The ACLU of Illinois is embarking on a project to put a human face on the status of reproductive health and access to care in Illinois. Over 10 days in July and August, we will be traveling the state, listening to women, men, young people and doctors throughout Illinois as they share stories about the barriers they face in accessing and providing reproductive health care and information. As we travel more than 2000 miles, through 13 Illinois cities and towns, we will learn more about the challenges everyday people face in filling prescriptions for birth control, in finding doctors who will provide needed services, including abortions, in dealing with Medicaid funding or in receiving comprehensive, age-appropriate sexual health education in public schools.

You can follow our journey at acluroadtrip.org or on twitter and facebook.

Do you have a story to tell? We’re listening. Email us at stories@aclu-il.org or visit action.aclu.org/rhstories.

News Health Systems

Illinois Bill: Catholic Hospitals Must Inform Patients Where They Can Obtain Denied Care

Nicole Knight Shine

The legislation amends the state Health Care Right of Conscience Act to require religiously affiliated facilities to inform patients in writing about health-care providers "who they reasonably believe" offer procedures that the institutions will not perform.

Religiously affiliated hospitals in Illinois must advise patients where they can find treatments that the institutions won’t offer on religious grounds, under new legislation sitting on the governor’s desk.

The patient information measure, SB 1564, comes at a time when almost about 30 percent of hospital beds in the state—and one in six in the nation—are in Catholic institutions that bar certain reproductive health and end-of-life treatments, according to recent figures from the advocacy group MergerWatch.

The legislation amends the state Health Care Right of Conscience Act to require religiously affiliated facilities to inform patients in writing about health-care providers “who they reasonably believe” offer procedures that the institutions will not perform, or to refer or transfer patients to those alternate providers. Hospitals must do this in response to patient requests for such procedures. The legislation cleared the state house on a 61-54 vote and the senate on a 34-19 vote. Democrats control both chambers.

The office of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) did not respond to request for comment on whether he would sign the bill.

Catholic facilities often follow U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops religious directives  that generally bar treatments such as sterilization, in vitro fertilization, and abortion care. The federal Church Amendment and some state laws protect these faith-based objections.

Even so, growing concerns over facilities that deny treatment that patients want—and that doctors advise—has recently prompted lawmakers in Illinois, Michigan, and Washington state to advance patient information measures.

A Michigan lawsuit now on appeal alleges a Catholic facility caused unnecessary trauma by denying a patient treatment. In 2010, then-18-weeks pregnant Tamesha Means arrived at a Catholic hospital, Mercy Health Partners in Muskegon, Michigan, bleeding and miscarrying. On two occasions, the hospital turned away Means, as Rewire reported. It wasn’t until Means started delivering on her third hospital visit that she received treatment.

The Illinois legislation represents a compromise among the Illinois Catholic Health Association, the Illinois State Medical Society, and the Illinois affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), representatives from the groups told Rewire.

Lorie Chaiten, director of the ACLU of Illinois’ Reproductive Rights Project, said in an online statement that the legislation “protects patients when health care providers exercise religious refusals.”

Research indicates that patients aren’t always aware that religiously affiliated facilities don’t provide a full spectrum of reproductive health services, according to a 2014 paper published in Contraception.

Patrick Cacchione, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Health Association, said the organization, which represents the state’s 43 Catholic hospitals, opposed an early version of the bill requiring religious health-care facilities to give patients a written list of known medical providers that perform the treatments that the religious institutions oppose.

Cacchione said such a direct referral would have made Catholic hospitals “complicit.”

“We will provide all the information you need, but we will not make a direct referral,” he told Rewire in a phone interview Monday. The new version of the legislation does not require hospitals to confirm that providers perform the treatments; the facilities must only have a “reasonable belief” that they do.

He said Illinois hospitals are already doing what the legislation now requires.

Approximately one in five doctors surveyed at religiously affiliated institutions “had experienced conflict with the institution over religiously based patient care policies,” according to the 2010 paper, “Religious Hospitals and Primary Care Physicians: Conflicts Over Policies for Patient Care,” published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

In an emailed statement, Dr. Thomas M. Anderson, a Chicago radiologist and president of the Illinois State Medical Society, told Rewire, “The Society strongly believes physicians should be able to exercise their right of conscience and changes made to SB 1564 protect that right.”


Transgender Student Maintains Locker Room Access in Illinois District

Jenn Stanley

Though the school district and the Department of Education reached a settlement, misunderstanding about the agreement led district officials to threaten to rescind it.

Days after a suburban Illinois school district reached a controversial agreement with the federal government about a transgender student’s locker room usage, school officials again heard arguments in a meeting to decide whether to rescind the settlement, ultimately keeping the agreement intact.

The board of Illinois’ Township High School District 211 decided to keep the agreement in place, as enforced by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), after hours of heated discussion between people who advocated for the transgender student to have access to the locker room of the gender with which she identifies and those who stood against the student’s rights.

Failure to comply with the agreement on a transgender student’s locker room access would result in the district losing $6 million in federal funds. The OCR’s finding that the district had violated Title IX in the case of a transgender student is the first of its kind. 

OCR officials and District 211 last week reached an agreement, but it became clear that there was misunderstanding about the terms of the agreement. The district said that the agreement applied only to Student A, the transgender student who filed the complaint.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Student A identifies as female. She plays girls’ sports, uses the girls’ bathroom, and is recognized by the school as a girl, except when it comes to the locker room.

She filed a complaint in 2013 because she was forced to use a separate changing area for gym and sports. The school district this fall agreed to let her use the girls’ locker room, but only if she changed in a private changing area. Other girls would have the option of using private changing areas, though it would not be mandated. This was another point of confusion about Friday’s agreement.

District officials said that they interpreted the agreement to mean that Student A must change in the private changing area. The ACLU, which represents Student A and her family, said that though their client wants to change in a private changing area, she is not forced to do so based on the agreement. They maintain that the agreement applies district-wide and not just to Student A.

The measure in the agreement reads:

Based on Student A’s representation that she will change in private changing stations in the girls’ locker rooms, the District agrees to provide Student A access to locker room facilities designated for female students at school and to take steps to protect the privacy of its students by installing and maintaining sufficient privacy curtains (private changing stations) within the girls’ locker rooms to accommodate Student A and any students who wish to be assured of privacy while changing.

On Friday, Catherine E. Lhamon, the Department of Education’s assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, spoke in favor of the ACLU, saying that district officials misspoke by indicating the agreement pertains to one student and that the student’s use of the locker room is contingent only upon her use of a separate changing area.

District Superintendent Daniel Cates released a statement saying that the district was “outraged” that the OCR misrepresented the agreement to the media and the public. The district then threatened to rescind the agreement, and an emergency meeting was held Monday to allow the public to voice their concerns before the school board voted.

Hours before the meeting, Lhamon sent a letter to the district’s lawyers that seemed to uphold the district’s interpretation of the agreement.

The full terms of the resolution of this investigation are set forth in the resolution agreement. As to the specific questions raised in your email, the agreement provisions specific to locker room access apply only to Student A and the District’s agreement to provide Student A access to the locker room is based on the student’s representation that she will change in private changing stations.

The school still heard testimony for two hours before holding a closed meeting to decide whether to keep the agreement in place. The school board announced a few hours later that since receiving the letter from the OCR, they have decided to keep the agreement in place.

“We are disappointed that the OCR made an already very difficult, passionate, and emotional issue very confusing with their apparent misstatements and lack of clarity in describing the agreement,” board president Mucia Burke said at the end of the meeting. “We are gratified, however, to receive the letter today that provides official clarity and removes any confusion surrounding the plan our Board approved early on December 3.”

The ACLU still maintains their view of the agreement, and told Rewire that the truth remains to be seen in the implementation.

“If you go back to November 2 and you look at the findings, they are incredibly powerful,” Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy at the ACLU, told Rewire. “Once you say that something is discrimination under Title IX, once you say that acting in this way is not consistent with federal law, it was never conceivable to us that the OCR would do something that would back away from that.”

Yohnka was referring to the OCR’s finding from their investigation of Student A’s claim, which states:

OCR finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the District is in violation of Title IX for excluding Student A from participation in and denying her the benefits of its education program, providing services to her in a different manner, subjecting her to different rules of behavior, and subjecting her to different treatment on the basis of sex.

Many from the district, including the group District 211 Parents for Privacy, oppose any compromise with the federal government, and believe the agreement should be rescinded regardless of its interpretation. The group believes that transgender students should not have any access to their gender-identified locker rooms or bathrooms.

The scene at James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, was tense and divided during the emergency meeting held Monday night to discuss the agreement between the OCR and Township School District 211. On one side, a vocal group held white signs that read “No Deal with the OCR” and “Go to Court.” 

That group sometimes booed their opposition, yelling at speakers to step away from the podium.

District 211 resident escorted out of the meeting for speaking out of turn. (Jenn Stanley/Rewire)

District 211 resident escorted out of the meeting for speaking out of turn. (Jenn Stanley/Rewire)

One man was expelled from the meeting when he yelled out of turn about how people from outside the district were not representative of the majority of District 211 families. As he was escorted out of the building by law enforcement, people standing on the sides of the packed auditorium wearing “Protect All Students” stickers cheered and clapped for him.

For the rest of the meeting, when someone spoke up in support of the agreement and Student A, shouts came from the back of the auditorium calling, “What district are you from?” and, “Sit down, these aren’t your children.”

Forty-two of the 150 people who drew numbers to speak were heard in the two hours allotted for open discourse. Many of the 600 people who attended the meeting were from outside the school district, there to show support for Student A. One of those supporters was Desiree Galeski, a transgender student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who was the sixth speaker of the night.

Galeski, an athlete, urged the school board not to misgender Student A.

A group of women wearing “Protect ALL Students” stickers laughed when Galeski said that she thought some day sports wouldn’t be gendered. Many who were there to oppose any agreement with the OCR were vocal about the fact that they believed outside voices and the media were portraying them as bullies.

Some teenage girls from the high school spoke publicly about how they would feel uncomfortable changing in the same dressing room as Student A, and said that they spoke for many students who were afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled as discriminatory. Many of those from outside the district expressed the importance of their presence to show support for Student A, who has not spoken publicly in an attempt to protect her privacy.

“I’m here because she deserves so much more,” Galeski told Rewire.

Some people on both sides of the aisle expressed disappointment with how the district has handled the situation, and the fact that the case has thrust the school into the national spotlight. Many of the speakers, however, welcomed outside voices and advocacy groups, because any decision regarding the matter is nationally significant.

While the nation looks on as the district debates and protests, some pointed out that at the heart of the issue is a teenager who wants to be treated like everyone else.

“I talked last night to the student and she said that this is the kind of thing that brings out the best and the worst in people,” Yohnka told Rewire. “She never wanted this. The district went public, not us, not the family. They wanted to resolve it privately and they just weren’t given that opportunity without going through all this. All they can do now is hope that we can come to a resolution that is good for everyone.”