SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Access to abortion is essentially locked down in Illinois. But Democrats are looking for ways to further protect the practice and its availability, including to outsiders who potentially face home-state penalties for seeking treatment here.
Legislation approved by both houses of the General Assembly include requiring Illinois insurers to cover abortion-inducing drugs, penalizing crisis pregnancy centers if they distribute inaccurate information and requiring colleges to offer reduced-price emergency contraception on campus.
Reaching beyond the borders is a high-tech House-approved measure that would require that interstate agreements over license-plate reading technology include a promise they not be used to track people traveling to Illinois for an abortion. It has its sights set on statutes such as the recent “abortion-trafficking” law signed in Idaho.
Lawmakers say they are not circling the wagons amid an increasingly hostile landscape since the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the constitutional right to an abortion last year. Instead, they see a necessary reaction to other states' overreach — or, as Rep. Kelly Cassidy has said, a response to Republican attacks on "people that they don’t think are equal to them.”
“We're saying, no matter what they do to you, you’re going to be safe here,” said Cassidy, a Chicago Democrat. “I’m not talking to the politicians doing this, I have nothing to say to them. I’m talking to the people that they’re victimizing. And I want to do everything in my power to make sure that we can keep them as safe as possible.”
Cassidy sponsored legislation, SB1344, that would require any company selling accident or health insurance in Illinois to provide coverage for abortifacients — drugs that interrupt pregnancies — hormonal therapy or immunodeficiency virus preventives.
Another measure, which abortion opponents promise will result in a lawsuit, would slap crisis pregnancy centers with deceptive practices — carrying a fine of as much as $50,000 — under the state's consumer fraud law for circulating false information.
The centers, nonprofit and often faith-based, offer services such as ultrasounds, counseling clients and providing diapers and formula. There are about 100 such centers in Illinois. Nationally, they far outnumber abortion clinics, and their influence is growing.
Glen Ellyn Democratic Rep. Terra Costa Howard, who sponsored SB1909, has examples of literature from the centers positing “scientifically debunked” information that abortion is linked to breast cancer, for example.
“We regulate how you can buy a car through deceptive practices or how somebody might sign up for a utility agency...,” Costa Howard said. “There’s nothing in this bill that limits the First Amendment. It's not a forced-speech issue. You can't lie and deceive people regarding health care.”
Ralph Rivera, legislative chairman for Illinois Right to Life, said such information hasn't been debunked, but is based on studies that have reached differing conclusions than ones highlighted by abortion-rights advocates.
“They say it's deceptive if we use our studies, that we can only use their studies,” Rivera said. “That's not deception, that's a difference of opinion on studies. We are not overstating the risk of abortion in causing cancer or infertility.”
Rivera said if enacted, a federal lawsuit will follow based on constitutional protections of speech and prohibiting laws that are vague.
The pregnancy centers have won in court before. A 2016 law requiring them to provide information on where clients could get an abortion was halted by a federal appeals court and still awaits trial court argument. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that a similar law in California was unconstitutional.
Democratic Rep. Barbara Hernandez of Aurora also won approval of a plan to require colleges statewide to provide emergency contraception, often referred to as Plan B, at a reduced cost in vending kiosks on their campuses. Republicans complained it forces higher education institutions to pay for a state requirement without state money, but Hernandez argued that they can set their own discount and that “this will help a lot of people.”
“They might live a couple miles away from a Walgreens or CVS. They might not have a car, and transportation might not be available to them,” Hernandez said. 'That’s why it’s important to have the product where they are just in case of an emergency."
Rep. Ann Williams, another Chicago Democrat, received House endorsement last week for requiring other states to pledge in interstate agreements not to use automatic license plate-reading technology to snare potential abortion patients leaving the state.
License plate readers photograph and bank license plates for law enforcement purposes. A plate number from a vehicle carrying a criminal suspect can be checked against the database to determine where it's been or going. A maverick sheriff could use it to track someone headed to Illinois for an abortion, Williams said.
Williams' legislation, sponsored in the Senate by Chicago Democratic Sen. Sara Feigenholz, won committee approval Wednesday and was headed to the floor. Sen. Celina Villanueva, a Chicago Democrat, led the other measures through the Senate. They await transfer to Gov. J.B. Pritzker, an ardent supporter of abortion rights.
“When states around us are taking such extreme steps ... we need to pull back. That’s not ideal. It’s not what the United States of America is supposed to be about. But that’s the place we’re in now...,” Williams said. "Are we are we making life a little more difficult? Probably. But it wasn’t us that wanted to strip (abortion) rights from over half the population."
This story has been corrected to show Rep. Barbara Hernandez is from Aurora, not Chicago.
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