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‘Not on my watch’: As abortion bans multiply, some states move to affirm a woman’s right to choose

Illinois state Rep. Joyce Mason (D-Gurnee) speaks in favor of the Reproductive Health Act on the floor of the Illinois House chambers on Tuesday, in Springfield, Ill. (Ted Schurter/State Journal-Register/AP)

Alabama. Ohio. Kentucky. Mississippi. Georgia. Utah. Arkansas. Missouri.

These are the states on the front lines of the cultural battle intensifying over abortion.

Next up?

Illinois is the latest place to advance legislation addressing access to the medical procedure. But the aim in Springfield, Ill., is vastly different.

“To our neighbors in Illinois who hear the news around the country and worry that this war on women is coming to Illinois, I say, not on my watch,” Kelly Cassidy, a Democrat in the Illinois House of Representatives, said in chamber debate on Tuesday. “To the people in Missouri and Alabama and Georgia and Kentucky and Mississippi and Ohio, I say, not on my watch.”

In a rebuke to states curtailing abortion rights, the Illinois House on Tuesday approved Cassidy’s Reproductive Health Act by a 64-50 vote, with six Democrats in opposition. The measure, which now goes to the Democratic-controlled state Senate, would remove restrictions on certain late-term abortions and scrap criminal penalties for doctors arising from a 1975 law whose enforcement has been blocked by the courts.

Illinois isn’t alone in its approach, as lawmakers in red and blue states alike begin to envision a world without Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that a woman has a constitutional right to choose whether to bear a child.

In Vermont, both houses of the state’s General Assembly endorsed a measure earlier this month that recognizes reproductive choice as a “fundamental right.” The state’s Republican governor, Phil Scott, has pledged not to veto the measure. Last week, lawmakers in Maine advanced legislation expanding abortion providers. Meanwhile, the majority-female Nevada Assembly approved a bill doing away with the requirement that doctors inform women of the “emotional implications” of an abortion.

Legislation is pending in additional Democratic-controlled states, such as Massachusetts, where the ROE Act would authorize abortion after 24 weeks in certain situations. Elsewhere, Democratic governors are promising to use their veto power to block Republican-led efforts to limit access to the procedure.

The legislative counterpunch shows that Isaac Newton’s dictum about equal and opposite reactions is truer nowhere than in the area of abortion, which bitterly divides voters. And it indicates how uneven access to the procedure could become if states’ rights were fully to prevail on the policy.

The contest over reproductive rights has taken on existential stakes with the solidification of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Antiabortion activists, who have worked for decades to chip away at state protections, believe their moment has come to achieve a more sweeping change.

But the nation’s top court left both sides dissatisfied on Tuesday, upholding part of an Indiana law regulating what happens with fetal remains while declining to revive another aspect of the legislation. The apparent compromise was a sign that the justices were not prepared to move decisively to reconsider the constitutional right to an abortion set forth in Roe.

Supreme Court compromise on Indiana abortion law keeps issue off its docket

Still, the legal schism that runs in parallel to the political split was on full display. Justice Clarence Thomas, in a 20-page concurring opinion, characterized the types of abortions proscribed by Indiana’s law — signed in 2016 by Mike Pence, then the state’s Republican governor — as “modern-day eugenics.” In a separate opinion of her own, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took issue with the terminology used by Thomas. “A woman who exercises her constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy is not a ‘mother,’ " she wrote in a footnote.

As the battle lines were drawn in the Supreme Court, tears flowed in Springfield over what suddenly seemed like a precarious legal guarantee.

Cassidy, who said an abortion two decades ago saved her life and preserved her ability to have her three children, emphasized that her aim was “creating protections in a post-Roe world.”

Republicans, led by state Rep. Avery Bourne, argued that the measure went too far in easing limitations, primarily in the area of fetal viability.

“This is not about keeping abortion legal in Illinois; this is about a vast expansion of what is allowed,” said Bourne, who is pregnant. “Please, for the viable babies who are waiting to be born, vote no.”

But Cassidy stressed that the bill was designed to “codify current practice.”

“As attacks escalate around us, Illinois can respond with equal force to defend reproductive freedom,” said the Democratic lawmaker, who is one of four openly LGBT lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly.

Castigating leaders in other states, her Democratic colleagues heralded Illinois as a “beacon” for women.

“Is that truly what we want in Illinois?” asked state Rep. Emanuel “Chris” Welch, pointing to the spate of new restrictions introduced in recent months and dwelling in particular on the possibility that women could be held criminally liable under Georgia law. “This is not the legacy that I want to leave for my daughter.”

But lawmakers in Illinois didn’t have to look that far for an illustration of the future they were trying to avert.

Perhaps the most striking example lay just across the state’s southwest border, in Missouri. The eight-week ban signed into law last week by Republican Gov. Mike Parson includes a trigger clause banning abortion at any stage of pregnancy, except in cases of medical emergencies, if Roe is overturned.

In fact, the legal status of abortion in Missouri could soon become a technicality. The state is on track to become the first in the nation without a single abortion clinic, if the license for the lone provider, in St. Louis, is allowed to expire on Friday.

Planned Parenthood, which is suing the state to continue offering services at the clinic, said the closure would leave “more than a million people in a situation we haven’t seen since Roe v. Wade.”

Many of the participants in Tuesday’s debate in Springfield were too young to recall a pre-Roe era. But Democratic state Rep. Joyce Mason rose shortly before the vote was tallied to recount a story passed down from her mother, who once found herself in the emergency room with a gallbladder issue, lying one bed over from a woman who had tried to end her own pregnancy.

“My mother described listening to the doctors and the police that accompanied her berate and scream at her and treat her like a hardened criminal because she had broken the law by trying to abort her baby with a coat hanger,” Mason said. “My mother then listened to the woman hemorrhage and die right next to her.”

The lesson her mother learned in that moment, Mason said, which the Democrat relayed to her colleagues, was that, “Women will continue to fight for the right for their bodily autonomy, and that no woman should ever die as a result of it.”

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