Updated 12:04 p.m.
An abortion rights package signed by Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker is causing political ripples nationally as anti-abortion Republicans showcase it in dozens of congressional districts that are expected to determine control of the U.S. House next year.
Surrounded by abortion-rights supporters, the first-term governor enacted the bill Wednesday, proclaiming his decision as a history-making move to protect abortion access in Illinois even if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
The governor also said his action on the Reproductive Health Act counteracts a series of steps in Republican-led statehouses across the country that have imposed near-complete bans on abortion, and it fulfills one of his touchstone campaign pledges.
“I promised Illinois would become a national leader in protecting reproductive rights and with the signing of the Reproductive Health Act, I’m keeping that promise,” Pritzker said.
The national Republican party is describing the Illinois legislation as the handiwork of the “socialist Democrat death cult,” focusing particularly on the bill’s repeal of a dormant statutory ban on a late-term abortion procedure critics call “partial birth abortions.”
The bill also establishes a “fundamental” right to abortion, requires health insurers to cover abortions, strips husbands of a legal ability to block their wife’s abortion and safeguards physicians from licensure sanctions or criminal penalties if they perform abortions.
“This is a big one. It’s interesting that the governor in Illinois — and sad, by the way — would sign a measure like this,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., who chairs the NRCC and heads the GOP’s 2020 effort to retake the House.
In Illinois, the U.S. House GOP’s political arm has targeted freshman U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., who last fall upset long-serving former GOP Rep. Randy Hultgren in her far west and northwest suburban congressional district. Also on the party’s hit list is U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., who is Emmer’s political counterpart as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Underwood and Bustos are among 55 House Democrats who are being targeted by Republicans. They’re also among 31 who won election last fall in congressional districts that President Trump won.
“I would ask them all quite frankly, Cheri Bustos, where they stand on these issues,” Emmer said, specifically referring to abortion. “Because we’re going to.”
Neither Underwood nor Bustos responded to multiple WBEZ requests for comment.
In May, Bustos, who favors abortion rights, generated headlines for backing out of a fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., one of the Democratic Party’s few remaining anti-abortion advocates on Capitol Hill. At the time, Bustos justified her cancellation on the basis of being “deeply alarmed” at the rise of anti-abortion legislation in Republican-controlled state houses across the country.
In graphic terms, Emmer specifically singled out Bustos and her silence on the Illinois legislation.
“If she’s running the campaigns for Democrat House members across the country, what’s her message? Is she embracing this far left, extremist position that basically you can suck the brains out of a child that is viable right up until the time of natural birth and even after natural birth under certain circumstances, you can take the life of that child or you can choose not to support the life of that child?” he asked. “I think you do have to ask those questions because it is important to voters, and voters can make a choice.
“These people don’t represent American mainstream values,” he said. “These extreme abortionists who want abortion on demand right up until even after the child is born, that’s not the representative we want to vote for.”
The GOP focus on the Illinois Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, which passed in 1997 and made certain late-term abortions a felony, involves a stricken state law.
The U.S. Supreme Court put it in a legal deep freeze in 1999 when it blocked Illinois’ statute and a similar one in Wisconsin from taking effect. A federal ban on “partial birth abortions” is in effect.
One of the lead architects of the Illinois abortion-rights package that passed the legislature two weeks ago criticized the Republicans’ nationwide focus on her legislation, including the so-called partial-birth abortion ban.
“Using this to whip people up into a frenzy is irresponsible and dishonest and fundamentally disrespectful of women,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, the chief House sponsor of the bill. “To suggest that anyone would end a pregnancy up to the moment of birth the way they say it, unless there was something horrific happening, is just repulsive to me.”
Cassidy said until WBEZ pointed out the GOP strategy to her, she was unaware that Republicans were using her legislation to target House Democrats in Washington.
“I hope it backfires on them,” Cassidy said. “That they’re using my bill as a weapon in races as far away as Florida, it shouldn’t surprise me. But I guess I still hope for a little more integrity from our leaders than we’re clearly getting.”
Republicans, who lost 40 seats and their House majority last November, need 18 seats next year to retake control.
One respected political observer who tracks U.S. House campaigns questioned whether the GOP focus on abortion in its targeted races ultimately would be a winning strategy.
“Look, I think that if one party is able to sort of successfully cast the other side as being particularly extremist on the issue, that’s probably a winning message for the middle of the electorate,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ nonpartisan newsletter on American campaigns and elections.
“But people are so divided on it already, and also I think a lot of peoples’ party affiliation may be sort of wrapped up into how they feel about the abortion question, you do wonder how much room for persuasion there is on that issue,” he told WBEZ.
Kondik rates the chances of Democrats holding control of the House next year at “better than 50-50.”
Dave McKinney covers Illinois state politics and government for WBEZ. Follow him @davemckinney.