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High court's backing of anti-abortion pregnancy centers raises doubts about Illinois' own 'conscience' law

High court's backing of anti-abortion pregnancy centers raises doubts about Illinois' own 'conscience' law
The Supreme Court is shown on June 25, 2018. On June 26, the court ruled against a California law that required pregnancy centers licensed by the state to tell clients about the availability of contraception, abortion and prenatal care at little or no cost. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)

Hope Life Center in western Illinois provides unplanned pregnancy counseling and ultrasounds for about five to 10 women a week, with a mission to “erase abortion from Illinois one woman and one child at time,” according to its website.

So Executive Director Debbie Case was alarmed by a change last year in the state's so-called right-of-conscience law, requiring health care providers to inform pregnant patients of all available medical options, including abortion. She said the pregnancy center even shut down for part of 2017 because its physician feared potential repercussions of violating the law, which is now temporarily blocked by the courts.

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Case and other anti-abortion advocates across the state hailed Tuesday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court against a similar law in California on First Amendment grounds, hoping the decision will strengthen their legal battle in Illinois.

“We’re definitely encouraged,” said Case, whose center is in Sterling, about two hours west of Chicago. “We are engaging in our services specifically because we want to prevent abortions. … The government is mandating us to do an act that is morally wrong, from our perspective.”

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The high court’s 5-4 decision — considered a blow to proponents of reproductive freedom — came the day before Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, which further encouraged abortion opponents while unnerving those who support the right to terminate a pregnancy.

“President (Donald) Trump has promised to nominate Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a written statement. “That promise should set off alarm bells for anyone who cares about women — and the Constitution.”

In Illinois, the law in question says medical providers must inform patients about all available medical options, including abortion and contraception, even if the nurse or physician has faith-based or moral objections. Medical practitioners also would be required to direct patients seeking these services to another provider.

Supporters of the law say it’s distinct from the one in California.

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“They’re very different laws,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the Reproductive Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “The Illinois law … ensures that if a patient goes to the doctor they can expect to be given the information they need to understand their medical circumstances and treatment options. They’re protections that apply across the board and they require all medical professionals to comply with their ethical obligations to provide standard of care information to their patients.”

The Illinois attorney general’s office also said the Illinois law is “different in a significant way” from the one in California.

“As a result, it’s speculation to declare how the courts will ultimately rule on the Illinois law,” said spokeswoman Maura Possley.

Proponents argue the Illinois law, sponsored by state Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat, is critical to the health and well-being of patients.

They cite an example, recounted in court documents, of a physician being called to the University of Illinois Hospital in the middle of the night to perform an emergency abortion when a patient was bleeding heavily, the result of a complication to a 19-week pregnancy. The patient had previously sought care at two religiously affiliated hospitals, one that gave her a blood transfusion, but neither discussed the option of having an abortion despite the low odds of continuing the pregnancy long enough to deliver a viable baby.

“At the second hospital, someone whispered that they were not ‘supposed to’ talk to patients about abortion, but that if she wanted an abortion she could go elsewhere,” according to an amicus brief filed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Illinois Academy of Family Physicians. “By the time she was admitted at the University of Illinois, the patient’s life and health were in jeopardy because she had not been timely informed about her medical circumstances and options by the first two providers.”

Jennifer Welch, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Illinois, called the Supreme Court decision “disappointing,” saying it permits medical providers to withhold vital information from women.

“Patients seeking health care or counseling during pregnancy require and deserve accurate information,” she said in a written statement. “Fake women’s health centers are lying to women, withholding medical information and cutting off access to care.”

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But the Illinois law faced legal challenges by various pregnancy centers, including the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, the plaintiff in the California case which has ties to 1,400 pregnancy centers across the country and many in Illinois.

“It’s completely viewpoint discriminatory,” said Thomas Olp, an attorney with the Thomas More Society, which represents Hope Life Center and other pregnancy centers fighting the law. “It’s attacking someone who has the conscientious objection to abortion.”

He said the Supreme Court’s stance “confirms our position in Illinois,” adding that both measures mandate “government-compelled speech.”

“The laws, although not identical, were very, very similar,” he said.

Implemented in 2016, the California legislation required centers licensed by the state to tell clients about the availability of contraception, abortion and prenatal care at little or no cost. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court said the centers are “likely to succeed” in their challenge to that part of the law. The California law also stipulated that centers that are unlicensed must post a sign saying so, a portion of the legislation struck down by the courts.

Dr. Robert Lawler, an obstetrician and gynecologist in west suburban Downers Grove who also volunteers at pregnancy centers, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the Illinois law will be overturned.

“This is a really slippery slope,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe abortion is good medicine or in the best interest of patients. “If you can coerce a physician to espouse a certain viewpoint, what are the limits of that? What’s next?”

Most people, he said, believe an obstetrician has two patients: “the mother and the unborn baby.”

“How can I refer my patients — one to be executed and the other to be harmed?” he said. “If the state says your conscience rights end the minute you go into that room to practice medicine, that’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the practitioner and it’s not good for the patients.”

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The Associated Press contributed.

Twitter @angie_leventis

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