Illinois Lawmakers Look to Expand, Protect Abortion Rights

An Illinois state representative is preparing to call a bill that would expand abortion access for women on Medicaid and some state health insurance plans.

State Rep. Sara Feigenholtz says the bill, which has been floating for two years, has renewed urgency in light of anti-abortion comments made by President-elect Donald Trump while he was on the campaign trail.

Currently, Medicaid covers abortion in the cases of rape and incest, as well as in some cases where the health of the mother is at stake. But pro-choice advocates say the exceptions are narrow, subject to the agreement of an auditor and that current law discriminates against low-income women who are on Medicaid plans, when more expensive private health plans cover the service fully.

“The problem is that the providers are very hesitant to invoke the health exception,” says Terry Cosgrove, head of the Personal PAC and who has helped push the bill in Springfield. “What if someone audits a woman [who] has high blood pressure and diabetes and a 90 percent chance of dying from carrying the pregnancy to term, but the auditor disagrees? Then there’s a threat they won’t receive reimbursement for the service. If a woman needs an abortion for any reason, she should have the ability to have her health care cover it.”

Emily Zender of Illinois Right to Life says she’s disappointed at the recent movement on this bill and would oppose any expansion of Medicaid to cover abortion services.

“This bill would provide government employees and those on Medicaid with free abortions,” Zender said. “I’ve counseled women who’ve had abortions. … Abortion isn’t the quick fix to the poverty they thought.”

She says she would hope Illinois takes its cue from the direction that Ohio is going. The Buckeye State’s legislature has passed bills that would outlaw abortion at either six weeks or 20 weeks into the term of a pregnancy. The constitutionality of those restrictions would almost certainly be challenged.

“What Illinois’ bill is saying to the rest of the Midwest is we are an abortion oasis,” Zender said. “It’s disappointing that politicians are focusing on this rather than the very real budget problems we face.”

Another bill sponsored by Feigenholtz may be largely political. She is proposing to protect the legality of abortion in case the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade law is overturned.

Feigenholtz says the bill, which is still being tweaked, stands a good chance of being called for a vote in the new General Assembly session in January, and is also a direct response to Trump’s comments on the subject.

“It is my assumption that with Donald Trump and Mike Pence at the helm that we’re going to see a much more conservative court, and it is the courts that ultimately decide these things, and if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the president-elect has publicly said, ‘You’ll be able to get abortions in some states, but not others,” Feigenholtz said.

The bill would abolish Illinois’ so-called ‘trigger law,’ that states that, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, abortion would become illegal in Illinois, as would several forms of birth control.

“What this bill means is that the state of Illinois and the Illinois Legislature is making a statement proactively that we are a safe state for a woman’s right to choose. We want Illinois to be a state where abortion services are safe and legal,” Feigenholtz said.

“If Roe v. Wade were overturned ... women would not stop having abortions. They would resort to the back alleys and have terrible outcomes. History will repeat itself. There will be sepsis wards in hospitals where women are dying because of bad, illegal abortions, and we don’t want that.”

Trump has promised to nominate anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. In a campaign interview last March, Trump said “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who seek abortions. Trump’s campaign later clarified that the statement saying punishment would be for the doctor involved in the abortion, not the woman having it.

Feigenholtz said the Illinois bill depends on a Supreme Court ruling that partially overturns Roe v. Wade and leaves it up to the states to decide.

Though it may seem highly unlikely for the Supreme Court to overturn a law that it decided more than 40 years ago, some law experts say that the concern among states like Illinois is real.

“It’s certainly not hyperbole,” said Carolyn Shapiro, a U.S. Supreme Court expert at IIT-Kent College of Law and former Illinois solicitor general. “My best prediction would be there wouldn’t be an out-and-out reversal of Roe v. Wade. It does depend on how many justices are appointed and who they’re replacing. If (more liberal) Justices Ginsberg and Breyer leave, all bets are off.  I think what’s quite likely is creative restrictions on women’s ability to get health care.”

Zender says that if the U.S. Supreme Court tinkers with Roe v. Wade it would be up to lawmakers at that point to determine what the law would be for the state of Illinois.

“I think politicians of the General Assembly have better things to do right now than worrying about Roe being overturned,” she said.

Feigenholtz says she is close to having the required number of votes to pass both bills, but she does not believe she’ll have a veto-proof majority. That means the bills are contingent on Gov. Bruce Rauner supporting them and signing them into law.

While Bruce and Diana Rauner have donated money to reproductive rights causes in the past, it’s unclear from his campaign and term in office where he currently stands on the issue. Rauner did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz


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