The president of a national network of pro-life pregnancy care centers is urging dozens of centers in Illinois to defy a state mandate that requires them to refer their patients to abortion providers.
"It is certainly no small thing to ask a pro-life individual or organization to refuse cooperation with a government," said Heartbeat International President Jor-El Godsey. "We do not arrive at this call lightly, but the state of Illinois has, unfortunately, put these community-funded outreaches—none of which receive state dollars—in a position where they simply cannot obey the government’s demands."
Illinois Senate Bill 1564, which was signed into law earlier this year by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, requires pro-life organizations to refer patients to doctors who will help them get abortions.
"If requested by the patient or the legal representative of the patient," the law states, pro-life organizations are required to "refer the patient to, or (ii) transfer the patient to, or (iii) provide in writing information to the patient about other health care providers who they reasonably believe may offer the health care service the health care facility, physician, or health personnel refuses to permit, perform, or participate in because of a conscience-based objection."
Pro-life pregnancy care centers, which provide ultrasounds, counseling, and other support, such as assistance with adoption and housing at maternity homes, are not the only groups targeted by the law; it also affects Catholic hospitals and all other health care facilities.
The Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union helped write the law.
"We believe that these negotiations and discussions yielded a measure that appropriately balances the interests of health care providers and patients," said ACLU of Illinois spokesperson Edwin Yohnka. "Before the amendment, the law did not strike the right balance between the needs of patients and the interests of health care providers. It permitted health care providers to refuse to provide a service or treatment on the basis of a religious objection, without providing patients with even basic information about their medical circumstances or options."
"The amendment adopted by the legislature and signed into law still allows providers to raise religious objections to providing certain types of health care, but it establishes a set of protocols that must be followed to ensure patients will receive this basic medical information," Yohnka said. "The Illinois State Medical Society, Catholic Conference of Illinois, and Illinois Catholic Health Association were all neutral on the final version of the law after lengthy discussions. The Catholic Health Association saw it as a reflection of current medical practice in Catholic hospitals."
An ethicist affiliated with the Catholic diocese of Rockford, Illinois, defended SB 1564 in an op-ed, calling it "a very flawed bill" that nevertheless did not force Catholic hospitals to discuss abortion with patients.
Other Catholic and medical groups and individuals disagreed.
The presidents of the five Illinois Guilds of the Catholic Medical Association opposed the law, declaring in a letter that it forces Catholics to be in "cooperation in the evil of abortion." Several physicians also signed a letter from the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom opposing the law before it was signed.
The law threatens over 150 "life-saving nonprofit entities," according to Godsey.
"[The law] demands that we violate both individual conscience and the ethical standard of the entire pregnancy help community. To bow the knee to the state is to deny the very foundation of our mission. No woman—and certainly no child—is ever truly served by abortion, which is why we cannot comply with this unjust law."
ADF Senior Counsel Matthew Bowman has filed two lawsuits against Rauner to overturn the law, claiming it runs afoul of federal laws related to conscientious objections to abortion.
"The new lawsuit also highlights Illinois’ violation of various federal laws including the First Amendment Free Speech Clause, and the Coats-Snowe conscience statute which forbids forcing a health care entity to arrange for abortion referrals," Bowman said. The law "requires doctors and other health personnel to provide information to help refer women to abortionists, and explicitly removes protections that previously stopped the state from taking away their medical licenses. … The Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation has the authority to impose fines against licensed health personnel."
Bowman highlighted testimony from ACLU lawyer Lori Chaiten to the Illinois House Human Services Committee in which she suggested pro-life groups would be required to "assist" patients in gaining access to abortions.
Illinois Rep. Peter Breen (R.) asked whether her insistence that Catholic institutions provide referrals to a health institution "that offers full service care" meant abortion providers.
"Well, they will refer for abortion, or they will talk to the patient about all of their options. And if the patient says ‘I choose termination,’ they will assist that patient in—they will facilitate access to that care. That is the healthcare that is being denied," Chaiten said in her testimony. "Not only does the CPC not provide abortion, but they won’t refer for abortion. They won’t facilitate access to abortion or to whatever other care they disapprove of. If they say ‘You know what, there’s a doctor down the road you can go to.’ That doctor might in fact help that patient understand what her treatment options are and where she can go to get that care."
Yohnka said the ADF misrepresented that exchange in its suit.
"First, Lorie makes clear that the law is not about abortion care, it is about health care more broadly," Yohnka said. "Second, she says that a facility can make a referral for abortion (if that is their choice) or they can send the patient along to another health care provider who can pick up the conversation about the service that the patient desires. The emphasis here is on the conversation and getting the patient the information they need to make an informed decision about their own health care. That is what the law does."
Yohnka said the law respects religious liberty. Godsey disagrees.
"The state of Illinois is threatening to force pro-life people to speak a government-dictated message in direct violation of both the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech and the free exercise of religion," he said. "The law’s gutting of Illinois’ Healthcare Right of Conscience Act explicitly forces pro-life medical professionals statewide to violate conscience and throw what they know to be true about abortion out the window."
Correction: This piece has been updated to remove a conflation of the stated goals of the ACLU's national chapter and its Illinois chapter.