Chicago aldermen are considering an ordinance that aims to protect by law abortion providers and patients, as concerns grow that states restricting the procedure will next turn their attention toward trying to stop and criminalize people traveling across state lines for care.
The so-called “Bodily Autonomy Sanctuary City Ordinance” would prohibit the Chicago Police Department, or any other city employee, from carrying out search warrants, sharing data, or assisting in investigations related to other states’ laws that restrict “bodily autonomy” in a way that’s “inconsistent” with Illinois law.
The ordinance is meant to protect people who travel to Chicago for an abortion, and also covers those seeking gender-affirming care, fertility treatment or birth control.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed an executive order with a similar function in July, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the longstanding court precedent that prohibited states from banning abortion.
Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd Ward, is a key sponsor of the ordinance, which could get a vote in the council’s health committee on Thursday.
“An executive order can serve that purpose, but we want to make sure that it passes to the City Council, and it’s codified,” Rodriguez Sanchez said. “The idea here is that we’re ready to fight. We’re ready to go to court and put our legal resources towards protecting people.”
The ordinance — which is still being finalized — includes some exceptions. Employees may need to cooperate in an investigation, for instance, if required to do so by Illinois or federal law, or forced to do so by a “court of competent jurisdiction.”
Rodriguez Sanchez said that provision gives the city room to fight back against potential out-of-state subpoenas or orders: “We can still go to court, and the city of Chicago goes to court all the time when they want to fight things,” she said.
States surrounding Illinois have or are set to enact some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion access. While many restrictions are currently focused on banning abortion within the state, legal experts say some conservative lawmakers are eyeing ways to prevent people from accessing abortion across state lines.
“I think this ordinance is well drafted, it’s thoughtful … I think this is necessary,” said Katie Watson, an attorney and bioethicist at Northwestern University. “It doesn’t help [people] after they leave Chicago and go home, but the city is doing what it can.”
Watson said in addition to protecting people from criminal lawsuits, “vigilante” lawsuits and extradition while in Chicago, the ordinance could have a significant symbolic impact.
“It’s a very strong value statement, that abortion and contraception and transgender care are not just permitted in Chicago, but they are supported in Chicago,” she said.
The ordinance is modeled after the city’s “Welcoming City” ordinance, which prohibits police officers from arresting someone on the basis of immigration status, and limits cooperation with immigration enforcement officials.
Introduced in July, the “bodily autonomy” ordinance will face its first key test at the council’s Committee on Health and Human Relations meeting. The committee includes some of the council’s most progressive members who are likely to vote in its favor. But that doesn’t mean it will be without opposition from abortion-rights opponents.
Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, who isn’t a member of the committee, said he’ll attend Thursday’s meeting to speak against the proposal. One of the council’s most conservative members, Sposato also opposed the “Welcoming City” ordinance meant to protect undocumented immigrants.
“It’s none of my business what Indiana or Wisconsin’s doing,” Sposato said. “I live in Illinois. I’m concerned about Illinois. I don’t want to see us turn into the abortion state of the Midwest.”
Under the ordinance, the Police Department would be responsible for working with stakeholders — including the Illinois Attorney General, the Illinois State Police, Cook County State’s Attorney and community organizations — to develop policies around how to assess “foregin warrants” from states seeking to punish residents who traveled for an abortion.
Those policies would have to include written guidance and training for police officers.
The ordinance doesn’t impose legal liability on employees who violate it. Instead, violations would go through the city’s disciplinary process for officers and employees. For instance, allegations that an officer illegally cooperated with an investigation would go to the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, which investigates police misconduct.
But Watson points out the proposal does not define, or point to existing municipal code, to explain how employees who follow the ordinance — and therefore refuse to cooperate with restrictive state investigations — would be protected against potential legal action from those states.
“The goal is to empower city agents,” Watson said. “Make it clear, we’ve got your back. What this is saying is ‘We’ve got patient’s backs’ and that’s amazing. You also have to take care of your employees.”
Rodriquez Sanchez has been negotiating with the city’s law department, and it’s possible the ordinance could change slightly leading up to Thursday’s meeting. Rodriguez Sanchez, who has gone head to head with Lightfoot on policy proposals in the past, said she’s hopeful the final draft will have the support of the administration.
In a statement, Lightfoot said she’s committed to codifying the executive order into law.
“Over the past month, my team has worked collaboratively with members of City Council and key stakeholders on the ordinance with the intent of presentation for consideration and passage by the City Council as soon as possible,” she said.
If passed Thursday, the proposal would head to the full City Council later this month.
Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her @MariahWoelfel.