Reproductive Health Act passes after emotional debate, narrow vote

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Women dressed as Handmaids, characters from Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," watch as Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, presents her arguments in favor of the Reproductive Health Act on the floor of the House in Springfield (Capitol News Illinois photo by Rebecca Anzel).

Liberal overhaul of abortion law advances to Senate

By Rebecca Anzel

Capitol News Illinois

ranzel@capitolnewsillinois.com

Lawmakers on Tuesday narrowly approved a bill overhauling Illinois’ abortion statute after more than two hours of debate that was passionate and, at times, emotional.

The Reproductive Health Act would replace the state’s current law with one backers and detractors agree would be the most liberal reproductive health statute in the nation.

It creates access to contraception, pregnancy benefits, abortion procedures, diagnostic testing and other related health care as a fundamental right, banning government from impairing access to those things for women and men.

The bill now moves to the Senate. Melinda Bush, a Democratic senator from Grayslake and the act’s sponsor in that chamber, said Monday she thinks it will succeed there. A committee hearing is expected soon.

Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker has vowed to “make Illinois the most progressive state in the nation for access to reproductive health care.” He said in a statement Tuesday he looks “forward to continuing my work as an ally by signing the Reproductive Health Act into law.”

The legislation’s passage comes as a hard-fought triumph for its sponsor, Chicago Democratic Representative Kelly Cassidy. She said after months of working to advance this initiative down a path that at times has “not been very easy,” she is “very pleased” at its success.

Cassidy said she is also feeling “relief, just relief that this step is over and that we are poised to affirm our support for reproductive freedom in Illinois and intentionally stand out from all these other states that are attacking women’s rights.”

The  General Assembly’s lack of action on the measure harmed Illinois women, she added.

“I think people have a false sense of security around these issues when the reality is that women are in real danger in Illinois as the result of our inaction,” Cassidy said at the beginning of the month.

The final vote was close — there were 64 Democrats voting in favor, 50 legislators from both parties voting no and four Democrats voting present. 60 votes were needed to pass the act successfully.

Advocates were trying to change minds and secure a favorable outcome right up until the vote. Several sources said Pritzker spoke to lawmakers Tuesday morning about why the tenets of the legislation were important to him.

Representative Maurice West, a Rockford Democrat said, “My ancestors had physical chains and laws that governed their bodies. We fought a civil war because we wanted to keep Black bodies chained and enslaved, and now you’re asking me, a Black man, to put policy chains on a woman’s body, on reproductive health …,” he said.

“But now we’re living in a time where government is trying to take away basic freedoms, personal choice, and that worries me more than the threats to my life or the promised curses on my life — I’ll handle those. I know how to pray against those,” West continued. “At this time, I’ve decided to trust women to do what’s best for themselves.”

Recent passage of abortion restriction laws in states such as Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and Ohio spurred the measure to get a second life this session. Legislation in some of those states was advanced, in part, to challenge the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion procedures nationwide.

“This vote makes it clear that Illinois women will always have the right to make their own medical decisions – regardless of what [President] Donald Trump, his right-wing judges and extreme politicians in other states do,” House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat, said in a statement.

The bill mandates private insurance companies regulated by the state must cover abortion procedures if they also provide coverage for pregnancy benefits. One of the changes to this most recent version of the legislation allows companies to employ cost-sharing provisions, such as co-payments, but only if it does so for pregnancy-related coverage as well.

The measure repeals several aspects of current law that courts have blocked, including criminal penalties for doctors and spousal consent.

A Senate panel is expected to hear debate on the bill soon, as the scheduled end of session was May 31.

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