In a move that angered anti-abortion forces, the Illinois attorney general announced Wednesday that a major abortion case that the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed to hear has been settled out of court.
The settlement, if it is agreed to by the high court, would set aside 10-year-old state regulations governing abortion clinics and allow Illinois women continued broad access to abortion services.
It also would remove from the Supreme Court schedule a case that had been anxiously watched nationally because it provided the court’s conservative majority an opportunity to further restrict or outlaw abortions.
“Illinois women have won a victory here today,” said Colleen K. Connell, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois’ reproductive rights project, a party to the lawsuit. She said the settlement bars the state from enforcing regulations that, in effect, required women to have abortions in “the equivalent of a hospital.”
Illinois Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan, who has negotiated with the ACLU directly for a month, said the settlement protects a woman’s “constitutional right of privacy allowing her the choice of whether or not to have an abortion,” while also protecting the state’s right to set minimum health standards for abortion clinics.
Ann-Louis Lohr, staff counsel of Americans United for Life, released a statement after the settlement was announced calling it “a back-room deal that will compromise the ability of all states to protect the health and safety of women.”
The settlement substantially lessens restrictions in state regulations that went into effect in 1979 but have not been enforced since 1985 because of litigation.
Rockford, Ill., physician Richard Ragsdale filed a lawsuit in 1985 challenging the 1979 state law, which he said imposed regulations that were medically unnecessary and would drive up the cost of abortions.
A federal judge agreed and put the rules on hold. The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals also agreed, but the state appealed, saying the rules are needed to protect women’s health.
The case, which abortion rights leaders had called a “must-win” case, was scheduled to be heard before the Supreme Court Dec. 5.
Hartigan said the parties filed a motion with the court late Wednesday asking that all proceedings be deferred. If the motion is granted, probably sometime next week, the parties will return to U.S. district court in Chicago to present the proposed settlement to Judge John Nordberg.
The agreement announced Wednesday sets up a four-tiered system of abortion providers. Doctors who perform abortions in their offices, and clinics that perform mostly other types of procedures, will not fall under abortion clinic regulations, according to the settlement, and may continue to operate as they do now.
Facilities that perform mostly abortions, however, will be subject to state inspections and must meet the requirements of a new set of regulations that will be devised. The fourth-tier of abortion providers would be full-service hospitals.
Abortions may be provided on demand in clinics up to the 18th week of pregnancy. Surgical centers licensed to perform both abortions and other outpatient procedures may perform abortions after 18 weeks if they are medically necessary.
Connell said the new regulations, which were not specified, would not require costly physical modifications such as those mandated by the 1979 law.
Molly Yard, president of the National Organization for Women, said: “I think it is very clear that Neil Hartigan has read the message of the majority of voters on the whole question of the right of a woman to control her reproductive” choices.
A small group of abortion opponents picketed in the snow outside the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago Wednesday as talks were winding down.
The leader of another anti-abortion group said that he had asked the Catholic Church on Wednesday to discipline Hartigan, a Catholic, for his stand on the issue. However, Joseph M. Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said that he was “not that displeased” by the settlement because “the writing is on the wall.”
“The Supreme Court doesn’t have to abide by Neil Hartigan,” he said. “The Supreme Court can overthrow Roe v. Wade anytime it wants to.”
He said other cases might provide better opportunities for the overthrow of the landmark 1973 ruling that granted women the right to seek abortions.
As the state’s chief lawyer, Hartigan defended the abortion statute on behalf of state Public Health Director Bernard J. Turnock and appealed the case to the Supreme Court after losing in the lower courts.
Now, however, Hartigan, a Democrat, is running to succeed Republican James R. Thompson when he retires as governor next year. Since announcing his candidacy for governor, Hartigan has declared that he favors abortion rights.
That pronouncement, and his announcement that he is running for governor, were met by scorn by abortion rights advocates, even as it alienated anti-abortion forces.
The leading Republican candidate, Secretary of State Jim Edgar, has solid anti-abortion credentials.
“Hartigan has made it clear he is courting the abortion vote,” said Scheidler. “He has denounced the teaching of the value of human life. . . . All Catholics who are pro-abortion should be denied the sacrament because they are excommunicating themselves from the church by taking a position diametrically opposed to the church.”
Turnock said the settlement protects the safety of women seeking abortions. “In this settlement today we have accomplished all that we wanted to accomplish by taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court,” he said.