Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed into law one of the most liberal reproductive health care measures in the country last month, but advocates and legislators say their work ensuring abortion is treated in statute the same as other health care is not yet finished.
The Reproductive Health Act, effective June 12, was the first step — it provided greater access to pregnancy care, contraception, abortion procedures and other related benefits for people of all genders.
Now, their attention has turned to the next step: removing what they see as an obstacle to abortion access for minors.
Sen. Elgie Sims, from Chicago, and Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, from Hillside, both Democrats, are leading the push to repeal a law mandating those under 18 consult their parents two days before getting an abortion procedure.
Proponents call the Parental Notification of Abortion Act a barrier to health care. Opponents warn striking it from statute would remove needed protections for minors.
“I think that it’s the right thing to do and so certainly, this is a fight that I’m in because it’s a fundamental issue and I want to continue that fight,” Welch said. “I’m going to try to get this repeal bill done in veto session if we can. If not, I’m certainly going to go back at it in January (when session begins again).”
Veto session is the last week of October and the second week of November. It is unclear if the support exists in the General Assembly to give backers of the repeal effort a legislative victory.
Illinois’ Parental Notification of Abortion Act became law in 1995, but only took effect in 2013 after being tied up in court. Legislators wrote their objective was to “further and protect the best interests” of minors in the state.
“Parental consultation is usually in the best interest of the minor and is desirable since the capacity to become pregnant and the capacity for mature judgment concerning the wisdom of an abortion are not necessarily related,” according to the statute.
Currently, an abortion provider is mandated to communicate with the minor’s adult family member — someone over the age of 21 who is the parent, grandparent, step parent or other legal guardian — 48 hours prior to the procedure and must document that conversation occurred. Under the law, it is not enough for the minor to have a conversation with the family member.
Alternatively, the adult family member can sign a waiver attesting he or she is aware the minor is having an abortion; the parent can accompany the minor to the procedure; the physician can perform an abortion if there is a medical emergency; or the minor can disclose in writing she is a victim of sexual assault by an adult family member.
Additionally, the Parental Notification of Abortion Act provides an option for minors to ask a judge for permission to get an abortion. That process, as outlined in the law, is designed to maintain the minor’s privacy.
The twin measures by Sims and Welch would repeal that act and clean up the language in three other statutes where references to it are made. They were introduced in both chambers of the General Assembly in February.
“Men can make health care decisions on their own without having to give notice to a parent. Why can’t a woman,” Welch said. “At the end of the day, I don’t want my wife and my daughter to be equal only in the confines of our home — I want them to be equal in the confines of the law. That’s what this fight is all about.”
In the House, the bill was assigned to the same subcommittee as every other measure related to reproductive health care and abortion introduced this session. It was left in legislative limbo.
In the Senate, the bill advanced much farther. Sims was able to get it out of a committee and before the full chamber, but never called it for a vote. It is unclear why.
“ABORTION IS PART OF A CONTINUUM OF REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH CARE”
Lawmakers introduced the Reproductive Health Act and a measure repealing the Parental Notification of Abortion Act around the same time this year.
“Our goal here in Illinois is to recognize the fact that abortion is part of a continuum of reproductive health care and women of all ages need to be able to have access to health care so that they can make the best decisions for themselves,” Brigid Leahy, senior director for public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said.
The strategy was to run the legislation in opposite chambers in the hopes each would reach Pritzker’s desk by session’s end. But when states such as Georgia, Missouri and Ohio began passing abortion restriction measures, that plan changed to solely push the Reproductive Health Act through.
“We essentially just ran out of time to then shift our focus and explain why repeal of Parental Notification of Abortion remains an extremely important priority for the state of Illinois,” Elizabeth Werth, staff attorney with the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. She works with the group’s Reproductive Rights Project.
More often than not, Leahy said, minors will speak with an adult family member or other trusted adult about their decision to pursue an abortion procedure. But proponents of repealing the act say it forces minors into conversations with adult family members with whom they may not have good relationships.
Deborah Holton, youth organizer with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health, said notification can result in the loss of a minor’s financial support, homelessness and emotional and physical abuse.
That means for minors in such situations, notification is “the practical equivalent of consent,” Werth said.
Backers of the repeal effort are quick to point out a pregnant minor can decide to have certain types of prenatal testing, opt to continue her pregnancy and choose how she wants to give birth without notifying her parents.
“This would be eliminating that exceptionalism for abortion and treating abortion like all the other types of medical care that a pregnant minor can decide to consent to and can choose for themselves who to involve for guidance and support in that process,” Werth said.
The law allows a minor to file paperwork with a court using a pseudonym or her initials to protect her identity. Meetings with a judge typically occur in a judge’s chambers with only a court reporter and a legal representative for the minor present.
The judge has to determine whether the minor is “sufficiently mature and well enough informed to decide intelligently whether to have an abortion,” according to the act. Typically, the waiver is granted.
Advocates are not in agreement about whether this provision is helpful or harmful.
Alyssa Vera Ramos, arts justice organizer with ICAH, said judicial bypass is “a bandaid” and “not the law or workaround that we want to see,” but it is something her group supports for minors who cannot approach their adult family member.
But Werth said the process is “overwhelming, traumatizing and, for some young people, insurmountable.”
The judicial waiver procedure is only accessible during business hours when minors have difficulty “safely and securely” meeting with a judge without their adult family members discovering their absence from school, for example, Werth said.
Another obstacle is the experience speaking with the judge. The law offers no guidelines for the conversation, so minors could be asked about their sexual history, familial relationships and other personal information.
“I think that that is where the supporters of these parental involvement laws are being disingenuous: they say they are there to protect teens. But they really are not designed to do that,” Leahy said. “What they're designed to do is put up a barrier for teens getting the health care they need.”
She was working for Planned Parenthood when the Parental Notification of Abortion Act was introduced in 1995.
“It was not parents groups that were pushing it — it was anti-abortion groups,” Leahy said. “It was part of their menu of barriers to make it harder and harder for people to access abortion.”
“THIS IS A COMMON SENSE REGULATION”
Those arguing the Parental Notification of Abortion Act should remain on the books say the law offers “fundamental” protections for minors that the General Assembly sought to enshrine when passing it in 1995.
“When we have this law, everyone wins — girls win because they have these key safeguards and parents win because their right to know and help their daughter is respected,” Mary-Louise Hengesbaugh, chair of Girls’ Health First, said. “This is a common sense regulation that needs to be preserved.”
Ann Scheidler, vice president of Pro-Life Action League, said minors are probably “a bit panicked” when they first learn of their pregnancy. Having an adult family member to offer guidance about health care choices and schooling options, and assistance ultimately deciding whether to carry the pregnancy to term or opt for an abortion, “are better addressed by the parents and the teenager together,” she said.
“She (wouldn’t) feel like she's sort of floundering all by herself trying to figure out what to do next if she has that support,” Scheidler added.
An adult family member should know if a minor chooses to have an abortion procedure in case of complications, such as excessive bleeding or clotting, said Mary Kate Knorr, executive director of Illinois Right to Life Action.
A parent or guardian can also provide emotional support or inform a physician of a minor’s preexisting risk factor or health condition.
“The reality is that from start to finish, through this entire experience of receiving an abortion, a minor girl will need support, and where will she get that support from if she isn't getting it from her legal guardian,” Knorr said.
She noted Illinois’ law requires an adult family member to be notified of a minor’s intention to undergo an abortion procedure — it does not require parental consent. That is an important distinction, Knorr said, because the burden on youth is not as high as it might be in another state.
Scheidler added the act’s provision for a minor to pursue a waiver from a judge “compensates for any difficulties” that may exist.
Opponents of the effort to repeal the act also point to statistics from the Illinois Department of Public Health that suggest the statute, in their view, is working. According to the data, the number of abortion procedures performed on minors has decreased since the law went into effect about five years ago.
Abortion rights advocates, however, say access to contraception played a role in the number of procedures declining.
The Parental Notification of Abortion Act additionally acts as a “checkpoint,” Knorr said, for human trafficking and abuse situations. Under current law, an adult family member must be consulted before a minor can undergo an abortion procedure. If the statute were to be repealed, Knorr said, an abuser could take a victim to a clinic for an abortion without the minor’s adult family member being notified.
“The use of abortion to perpetuate the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking is real,” Hengesbaugh said. “Repealing Parental Notice would empower sex traffickers and male predators to use abortion to conceal evidence of their crimes against minor girls.”
The pair of bills striking the Parental Notification of Abortion Act from Illinois’ books will likely come up during veto session beginning Oct. 28, Welch said. It is unclear in which chamber of the General Assembly the push will begin.
And while it is unlikely the two Democratic sponsors will find support across the aisle, Sims indicated he is open to speaking with his Republican colleagues about the measure’s tenets.
“I remain optimistic about the progress we’ve made to protect reproductive freedom and will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle and the governor to ensure young women have access to quality, safe, reproductive health care,” he said in a statement.
Other advocates are equally hopeful the repeal bill will prevail. Leahy said she knows there is support among lawmakers for the initiative and disagrees with the opposition’s view the measure will not receive votes from legislators who are parents.
“I really am hoping that Illinois continues on this trend of bucking what’s going on around us and saying, we’re going to hold the line here in Illinois and we’re going to make sure that things are okay for people in Illinois; that they are the ones who make the decisions about their health care — not politicians and not judges,” she added.
But opponents are not so sure. Knorr said the bill is “consistently unpopular,” even among lawmakers who voted for the Reproductive Health Act. Being a parent is a strong motivator, she said, because “they know that if their 16-year-old ever got pregnant, they’d want to know about it.”
Knorr added that if Democrats moved forward with the legislation, it would be successful — but with detrimental effects to the party in the 2020 reelection cycle.
“There is a very small minority of extreme, pro-choice legislators who are pushing for this bill. The rest are uncomfortable with it,” Knorr said. “That is the reflective attitude of the vast majority of people in this state. I mean, yes, certainly there are a populace of pro-choice people in Illinois, but of that fraction, there is a large majority that think parents should be notified if their minor daughter who lives in their house is seeking an abortion.”
The initiative is mirrored by a recommendation made by the governor’s Equality, Equity, and Opportunities Transition Team. In the report, the group advised his administration to “take action to keep abortion safe, legal, and accessible.”