Does the midwest still need Illinois to be its abortion oasis?

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Planned Parenthood rallied in Chicago last week in celebration of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a restrictive Texas abortion law. - APRIL ALONSO
  • April Alonso
  • Planned Parenthood rallied in Chicago last week in celebration of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a restrictive Texas abortion law.

Last week's Supreme Court decision to strike down a Texas abortion law reverberated across the nation as a major victory for pro-choice activists. In Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, the court declared unconstitutional a Texas law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, and abortion clinics to meet the safety standards of outpatient surgical centers. A majority of justices found in their ruling that neither of those requirements actually protect women's health.

But both aspects of this now-defunct Texas law originated in the midwest. Twenty years ago, Missouri became the first state to hold abortion clinics to the same standards as outpatient surgical centers; in 2005, the state passed the nation's inaugural hospital-admitting privileges legislation. As a result, the number of abortion clinics in Missouri has dwindled from 29 in 1982 to just one today.

In contrast, Illinois has 37 abortion providers. In 2012, the CDC found that nearly 600 women from Missouri who obtained abortions did so in Illinois.

They weren't alone: Missouri, Wisconsin, and Indiana also have abortion laws that give Texas a run for its money. And, as Crain's reported last week, that's driving thousands of women to Illinois to obtain abortions rather than deal with the legislation in their home states.

More than 300 Wisconsinites came to Illinois for abortions in 2012, back when its hospital-admitting privileges law was still on the books. In late 2015, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law, and the Supreme Court's June ruling rejected a bid by Wisconsin to revive that restriction.

The majority of out-of-state abortion-seekers, however, come from Indiana. In 2012, 567 Hoosier women obtained abortions in Illinois. In late June a federal judge blocked a new Indiana abortion law that would have banned the procedure based on fetus disability or genetic abnormality. Still, the state has an admitting privileges law that Patti Stauffer, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood in Indiana and Kentucky, says significantly impedes the ability of physicians to perform abortions (though pro-life activists say the goal is to ensure safety).

What's not yet clear is whether this pattern of women from Indiana seeking abortions in Illinois will continue now that pro-choice activists can use Whole Woman's Health to challenge state laws.

Compared to the proposed law in Texas, Indiana's is less restrictive geographically, and provides one option other than obtaining admitting privilege. Abortion doctors can enter into an agreement with other doctors with admitting privileges, and use that contract to perform abortions. These differences make it not yet certain how Whole Woman's Health will impact Indiana legislation, but pro-choice advocates in the state are optimistic.

"There's no question that, moving forward, it's going to be extremely helpful to have a standard by which undue burden can be assessed," Stauffer says.

Micah Clark, director of the pro-life American Family Association of Indiana, is fearful that Whole Woman's Health will "embolden abortion activists to strike down many of the pro-life laws Indiana has passed in recent years." He says pro-life leaders in Indiana is currently "on the defense," and unsure of their next move.

Still, change could come slowly. Colleen Connell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, says that even though Whole Woman's Health tilts the balance in favor of pro-choice advocates attempting to strike down abortion restrictions, it doesn't do so instantly.

"Nothing immediately changes just because of Whole Woman's Health, but it makes positive change much easier to achieve," Connell says. "The progress will take time."

Connell would know. Back in the 1980s, she was part of the legal fight to strike down abortion restrictions in Illinois similar to the restrictions struck down with Whole Woman's Health.

"Illinois isn't an oasis by coincidence," Connell says. "This state wouldn't be a safe haven for abortion without 40 years of litigation and activism from the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and other groups."

Whether or not abortion laws change in neighboring states, and whether women still head to Illinois to obtain abortions, Planned Parenthood Illinois's interim CEO Linda Diamond Shapiro stresses that its doors are always open. The group has been expanding since the passage of the Affordable Care Act gave greater access to preventative care coverage, Shapiro says, and the group has ample resources to handle out-of-state abortion seekers.

Still, she and others hope that in the wake of the Whole Woman's Health decision, the need for an Illinoisan oasis will one day disappear.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated the number of women from Indiana coming to Illinois for abortions in 2012. The correct number is 567, according to the CDC. 


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