From police raids to reproductive justice, abortion history in Illinois is long and bumpy

Illinois now has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, but that hasn’t always been the case.

women protest the hyde amendment
Women picket in protest of the Henry Hyde Amendment, named after its sponsor, the late Republican congressman from Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. The amendment, which prohibits the use of Federal funds to pay for abortions, passed in 1976. In 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill that nullified it in Illinois. Chicago Sun-Times
women protest the hyde amendment
Women picket in protest of the Henry Hyde Amendment, named after its sponsor, the late Republican congressman from Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. The amendment, which prohibits the use of Federal funds to pay for abortions, passed in 1976. In 2017, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill that nullified it in Illinois. Chicago Sun-Times

From police raids to reproductive justice, abortion history in Illinois is long and bumpy

Illinois now has some of the most liberal abortion laws in the country, but that hasn’t always been the case.

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In December 1947, police raided the Chicago North Side apartment of midwife Helen Stanko. Officers picked up eight women and questioned them, and doctors coerced the women to have gynecological exams. Authorities captured the women and invaded their bodies to see if Stanko performed illegal abortions. The pelvic exams confirmed pregnancies. Stanko went to trial and was convicted. Even though convictions were overturned, the reasons were for technicalities and not because of the coerced treatment of the women.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in 1973. However, abortion remains legal in Ilinois, a state known for some of the strongest laws in the country protecting abortion rights and a legacy of activism in protecting those rights.

The Jane Collective, an underground network of women that helped people get abortions in the 1960s and 1970s, and the reproductive justice movement — a decidedly Black feminist lens on abortion access — were founded in the state. But Illinois’ abortion history is long. Unlike the political debate over abortion on the national level, in Illinois, supporters and opponents have come from both sides of the aisle. Women and abortion providers have been criminalized, and lawmakers once enacted restrictions like those in other states. And raids, like the one that Stanko endured, occurred often.

Long before that, however, abortion wasn’t a crime or even referred to by that name.

“Abortion wasn’t really called abortion, it was more menstrual regulation,” said University of Illinois professor Leslie Reagan, author of When Abortion Was a Crime: Women, Medicine, and Law in the United States, 1867-1973.

“In Illinois, as in the rest of the early United States, abortion was not regulated,” Reagan added. “It was legal under common law. And common law is what is inherited from England. And it’s not a list of laws; it’s sort of common practice and common law.”

Enslaved Africans, white Europeans and Native Americans all had their own methods of using plants before “quickening,” the term used when pregnant people could feel movements of the fetus.

Illinois passed its first abortion statute in 1827. Like similar statutes in other states, the language focused on poison administered to cause a miscarriage. The penalty was imprisonment of no more than three years and a fine of no more than $1,000. Reagan said, in 1857, the newly formed American Medical Association, which eventually established its headquarters in Chicago, launched an anti-abortion campaign. An elite group of educated men waged attacks on female midwives and doctors. In 1867, Illinois criminalized abortion from conception and laws like that spread nationally.

Heather Booth portrait
Heather Booth, who started the Jane Collective, stands for a portrait at her house in Washington, DC, on May 27, 2022. In 1965, Heather Booth helped a young woman find a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion, in what she believed would be a one-off act of goodwill. That one act would grow into an underground network of women called Jane, whose members helped end thousands of unwanted pregnancies, safely and without stigma, eventually performing 11,000 abortions themselves. Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

Passing criminal abortion laws also addressed anxieties about lagging white middle class birth rates — fueling nativism, racism and anti-feminism, as well as anti-Catholic sentiments.

“Soon, their class would be outnumbered by immigrants, by people of color, by the newly freed people. And the women were not doing their duty as women as wives, or to this American nation — meaning white, Protestant and Anglo Saxon,” Reagan said.

Doctors could perform what was called therapeutic abortions for medical reasons. Access to abortion fell along white race and class lines. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois fought for abortion rights and won a victory pre-Roe.

Doe v. Scott was litigated in federal court in Chicago with lawyers arguing that women had the right to make decisions about whether to carry or terminate a pregnancy. In 1971, the court found that the 1867 Illinois law criminalizing abortion was unconstitutional — but only for 10 days. Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan appealed the decision and won an injunction until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe.

According to Reagan, Hanrahan, a Democrat, went on a crusade to signal to doctors that abortion would not be tolerated in Chicago. A year after the Doe case, the state’s attorney appealed a therapeutic abortion case to the state supreme court. A juvenile court had allowed a suicidal teenage ward of the state to have an abortion. However, the state supreme court ruled that the law did not allow therapeutic abortion for suicidal intentions. Meanwhile, Cook County Hospital had a septic abortion ward in which women suffered as a result of illegal abortion because of unregulated methods or women inducing the procedure themselves. They bled, burned and some of them died.

After the 1973 Roe decision legalized abortion, the Illinois General Assembly began its two-decades-long legislative assault on abortion.

Colleen Connell is executive director of ACLU Illinois and previously director of its reproductive rights project.

“The Illinois abortion law of 1975, which was amended frequently, was sort of the — no pun intended — granddaddy of it all. We would describe that as an omnibus abortion law,” Connell said.

The law defined a fertilized egg as a fetus, “which is obviously not medically correct,” Connell said. A “trigger” provision said if Roe was ever overturned that abortion would be illegal. Abortions at one time required spousal consent and then spousal notification.

Anti-abortion forces gained momentum in Illinois. Local leaders such as Dr. Eugene Diamond and law professor Victor Rosenblum brought Americans United for Life to Chicago, which served as a think tank for anti-abortion legislation. Influential downstate conservative Phyllis Schlafly used her Eagle Forum to rail against abortion. She’s best known for opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and argued that its passage would constitutionally protect abortion. And then there’s Henry Hyde, the late Republican congressman from Chicago’s Northwest suburbs. In 1976, the Hyde Amendment blocked federal Medicaid funding for abortion services.

One of the things that was frustrating for Connell, as an abortion advocate, was going to court to challenge a newer version of a law that had already been struck down.

“What one legislator told me really stayed with me all these years later, and he said to me, point blank, he said, ‘Look, if I vote for the bill, it’s sort of no harm, no foul. It gets the anti-abortion activists who make my life miserable [off my back.] And I know that you do; you’re gonna go to court, you’re going to challenge it and you’re going to win,’ ” Connell said.

Over the decades, partisan politics didn’t play so neatly with abortion. There were Democrats against abortion and Republicans who supported abortion rights, notably former Republican governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar.

Former Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner joined those ranks when, in 2017, he signed into law a bill overturning the ban of Medicaid for abortion services. Illinois is one of the few states to do so and the Hyde Amendment no longer applies here. The bill Rauner signed also repealed that “trigger” provision that would outlaw abortion if Roe were to be overturned.

Bruce Rauner
Pictured in this July 28, 2016, file photo, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner surprised and angered some lawmakers in his party and conservative groups for signing two Democrat-sponsored bills, one extending insurance coverage for nearly all contraceptives and another requiring physicians who refuse to perform abortions for moral and religious reasons to provide information to patients on where they can go for the procedure. Tae-Gyun Kim / Associated Press
In 2019, Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker signed the Reproductive Health Act, which takes abortion out of the criminal code by repealing the 1975 state abortion law. It guarantees reproductive health as a right in Illinois. And as of this month, Illinois no longer requires parental notification if a minor seeks an abortion.

“There was intentionality to it,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy of having three steps since 2017 to bring Illinois where it is today on abortion rights.

“It was incredibly hard and very nearly didn’t happen. There was much more intense pushback on the concept of being hyperbolic or hysteria that Roe was in danger,” Cassidy said. After the draft opinion of Justice Samuel Alito was leaked last month, they changed their tune, she said.

Yet Cassidy said Illinois’ protections aren’t enough. The Chicago Democrat said the next phase of state legislation she’s working on is meant to protect patients and providers who travel here from other states where abortion is restricted. Some states have signaled they will prosecute individuals who travel across state lines to get an abortion prosecution.

Illinois as ground zero for abortion access in a post-Roe America is also on the mind of Amy Gehrke, executive director of Illinois Right to Life. She said the shift of Illinois having some of the most liberal abortion laws in the nation makes the state ground zero for opponents.

“Illinois Right to Life has been preparing for this moment. We’re working to see what needs to be done to achieve our vision of winning Illinois for life, one heart at a time,” Gehrke said.

And she said there’s a three-part plan in the works: targeting key state legislator races, educating people on Illinois law and providing direct aid to women so abortion isn’t an option. “Because Gov. Pritzker and Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot have basically rolled out the welcome mat for people to come to Illinois for abortions. Our fight is really just now beginning,” Gehrke said.

For Connell, of the ACLU, the fears of white population loss in the 1800s as a reason to oppose abortion rings true for her today. Factions of the Republican Party aligning with white nationalism concern her.

“In some ways, misogyny and anti-abortion views are the gateway drug to white nationalism,” Connell said. “It figures in the hideous replacement theory that white women aren’t having [enough babies.]”

Leslie Reagan, the University of Illinois professor, said aggressive methods of enforcement — like the home raids of midwife Helen Stanko — will return in a post-Roe era.

“Expect that police and prosecutors will interrogate people who are miscarrying in the emergency room,” Reagan said. “Missouri is saying they want to go after anyone who helps a Missouri person come to Illinois to get an abortion.”

This is what southern states did in trying to retain their property of enslaved African Americans via the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

“It is very telling that they think they own the bodies of their citizens,” Reagan said. “Even if all these things don’t go far, the level of harassment is going to tell people they’re in danger.”

Natalie Moore is a reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. You can follow her on Twitter at @natalieymoore.