What Illinois reproductive rights would look like in a world without Roe v. Wade


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

Abortion is protected in Illinois with the 2019 Reproductive Health Act, meaning it could become a hotspot for out-of-state patients if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Isabelle Butera, Reporter

Content Warning: This article contains mention of rape and sexual assault.

For blue states like Illinois, a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade won’t mean the end of legal abortions — but it will change the landscape of reproductive justice.

In 2019, Gov. J. B. Pritzker passed the Reproductive Health Act, guaranteeing the legality of abortion even if the U.S. Supreme Court decides otherwise, a possibility suggested by Justice Samuel Alito’s recent leaked opinion. However, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, Illinois will be surrounded by states that ban or limit abortion access, according to the reproductive research-focused Guttmacher Institute.

The Illinois Department of Public Health reported almost 10,000 of Illinois’s abortion patients in 2020 came from out of state, representing a 29% increase since 2019. It is expected to increase again if Roe v. Wade is formally overturned according to Lynne Johnson, executive director of the Midwest Access Project, which aims to make reproductive healthcare accessible. 

Johnson said this will put a strain on abortion providers with already heavy caseloads. She predicted that clinics statewide would require more staff to deal with the influx of patients and that abortion providers like Planned Parenthood would need more funding. 

“If it’s a fundamental right, and we know we’re going to experience an influx of patients, then the next step for the state is to provide resources to create those new services,” Johnson said.

Reproductive justice

Johnson said making abortions more difficult to obtain will disproportionately impact low income individuals due to high travel expenses. Bans are also expected to disproportionately impact people of color, who the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported receive abortions at higher rates. 

Illinois Chief Diversity Officer Sekile Nzinga said this is why activists and politicians need an intersectional reproductive justice framework that treats access to reproductive healthcare as a human right. 

While abortion will remain firmly legal in Illinois, that doesn’t mean it will be — or always has been —  accessible. Nzinga said it’s essential to provide financial and emotional support to all those seeking abortions.  

“Even since Roe has been in place, we have been mobilizing to provide access to abortions for women of color, indigenous folks, trans folks, queer folks, folks with disabilities because of the legislative barriers … and all the other barriers that are in place,” Nzinga said at a Roe v. Wade teach-in at Northwestern this week.

Advocates like Christine Berry, director of services at the Illinois-based Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, also worry about how a decision overturning Roe v. Wade will impact survivors of rape. 

Berry said her first concern was related to what might happen to a state policy currently allowing survivors of sexual assault access to emergency contraceptives in emergency rooms. A U.S. Supreme Court decision similar to the leaked draft could call into question routine practices that support survivors, she said. 

U.S. abortion policy rarely centers data, instead leaning on partisan politics and morality, Berry said. She said she’s seen a collective lack of understanding about the experiences of survivors, such as the retraumatization that occurs for sexual assault survivors who cannot access an abortion after rape. 

“It is integral for all survivors of sexual violence to have control over what happens and that access to reproductive rights and reproductive health and options,” Berry said. 

Possible legal implications

While Illinois will not ban abortion directly, Pritzker Prof. Tonja Jacobi said a U.S. Supreme Court  decision could have larger national impacts affecting the state’s policy options.

Abortion is among the rights loosely protected constitutionally by the 4th Amendment right to privacy, Jacobi said. Although it’s among the rights not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, she said, it’s been recognized for decades as one derivative of liberty. 

By overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court weakens that same statute of privacy, which is  central to related cases, including those permitting contraceptives and same-sex marriage, Jacobi said, adding the country is likely to see challenges to these cases in the next couple years. 

“This isn’t just theoretical,” Jacobi said. “These are things that have been attempted in this country in recent years by Republican legislatures.”

If Republicans gain control of both houses of Congress and the White House in the next several years, Jacobi added, the legislative and executive branches could also institute national laws restricting abortion that would nullify Illinois’s protections. 

Looking ahead

State Rep. Robyn Gabel is among the Illinois legislators firmly in support of protecting access to abortion within the state. 

“The ability to control your reproduction is the essence of your freedom,” Gabel said. “When women can’t control their reproduction, they are forced to have children. It affects their emotional lives, it affects their physical lives and it affects their financial lives as well.”

While she said she’s proud of the progress Illinois has made thus far, Gabel said she would support funding the construction of new medical facilities offering reproductive healthcare. She also said she would support additional resources for out-of-state doctors who want to provide abortions to get licensed in Illinois, as well as allowing nurse practitioners to provide abortions.  

For organizers like Nzinga, mobilization is key. At the Roe v. Wade teach-in, she recommended attendees pause before reacting in order to center the voices of established activists taking a constructive and intersectional approach to mobilizing. 

She said it’s also important to engage in conversations with those who don’t support reproductive rights.

“We have to build power by engaging in the people that we don’t want to have this conversation with,” Nzinga said. “That is the real work.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @isabelle_butera

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