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Backing Abortion Rights Bill, Cassidy Speaks Up About Her Abortion

By Ariel Cheung | February 9, 2017 7:45am
 Illinois state Reps. Sara Feigenholtz and Kelly Cassidy.
Illinois state Reps. Sara Feigenholtz and Kelly Cassidy.
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CHICAGO — With abortion access under siege by a president who once suggested women who seek abortions should be punished, several North Side state representatives want to make sure abortions remain safe and legal in Illinois.

One even decided to speak up about her own.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) said medical issues meant that without an abortion, she would have become infertile as a result of a high-risk pregnancy.

"I didn't want to have an abortion; I wanted to have those two babies," Cassidy said during a committee hearing Wednesday. "But I wanted to survive, and I wanted to maintain my fertility."

Cassidy, who represents Edgewater, Andersonville and Rogers Park, added that she never would have had her three sons later on had it not been for the affordable, safe access to an abortion.

"I want everyone in this state to have the choices I had to have their babies, to have their life," Cassidy said.

Cassidy was among the seven votes to favor legislation introduced in January by Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago). Feigenholtz wants to remove portions of a 1975 law that would ban abortions in Illinois should the U.S. Supreme Court ever overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion — a possibility under the presidency of Donald Trump.

The so-called "trigger provision" would not allow exceptions in the case of rape or incest, although abortions could be performed if the mother's life were in danger.

"It was essentially put in, right after Roe v. Wade was passed, by a bunch of anti-choice zealots," Feigenholtz said. "But the majority of their districts don't want to see women revert to back-alley abortions that are unsafe."

Her bill would render a fetus no longer a legal person with a right to life from the time of conception, while also allowing state medical aid and grants to nonprofits to pay for abortions, miscarriages and premature births. Fifteen other states provide such financial aid, said Feigenholtz, who represents Lakeview, Lincoln Park and Near North Side.

RELATED: How Chicago Women Helped Bring Safe Abortion Access To The Midwest

On Wednesday, the Human Services Committee voted 7-5 along party lines in favor of the bill. Both sides touched on aspects of the abortion debate also playing out on the national front, with opponents voicing fears that refusing to consider a fetus a person and pushing the state to pay for abortions were steps too far.

In the second year of a heated state budget impasse, talk of paying more money for abortions made little sense, said Bob Gilligan, director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois.

The church's public policy arm opposed the bill, suggesting instead such money go to crisis pregnancy centers — typically Christian-run organizations that counsel against abortion and offer prenatal services and, in some cases, temporary housing.

"The one thing that happens in an abortion is a human life ends," Gilligan said.

Rep. Sheri Jesiel (R-Winthrop Harbor) said it was unnecessary to eliminate existing provisions that grant a fetus protection from the moment of conception, particularly when people can be charged with homicide or manslaughter if a fetus is killed in a criminal act.

"What we're saying here is that we don't recognize — and I think we have a responsibility to recognize — that an unborn child is a human being," Jesiel said.

Witness slips — which the General Assembly offers as a means for the public to voice positions online — poured in by the thousands, with 70 percent of the 11,109 witnesses in favor of the bill that would keep abortion legal in Illinois. 

"I think that even the fence sitters are pretty daunted about the prospect of abortion being illegal and are smart enough to realize that just because abortion is illegal doesn't mean women aren't going to get them," Feigenholtz said.

To illustrate her point, Dr. Edward Linn spoke about his residency at the now-closed Michael Reese Hospital in the 1970s.

Now the obstetrics and gynecology department chairman at Stroger Hospital of Cook County, Linn recounted witnessing "women of all races and classes losing their fertility because of life-threatening complications."

"I saw women die," he said.

Botched abortions were so frequent — with many women injecting themselves with an inflammatory solution that would endanger their lives to the point where hospitals could legally finish the procedure — that residents were trained on how to save the patients, Linn said.

In one case, Linn tried to remove the gangrene-infected uterus of a woman whose illegal abortion resulted in a severe infection. But the gangrene had spread to her kidneys, and the mother of seven died during the operation.

"And I have been [a doctor] that has supported access to safe, legal abortion ever since," Linn said.

Nationally, #ShoutYourAbortion became a rallying cry in late 2015, five months after Trump announced his run for president. Under the belief that "anyone who is forced to procreate or continue an unviable pregnancy has lost their liberty and right to life," the social media movement sought to normalize people who receive abortions, encouraging them to tell their stories without fear.

Before Wednesday, Cassidy had spoken publicly about her abortion once to a reporter, but it didn't make it to print.

"It was jarring that [the reporter] thought it was such a shameful thing to discuss," Cassidy said in an email. "Most people know someone who has had an abortion, but we have so successfully created an aura of shame that people can pretend it's something for 'others' and will never affect them."

With colleagues who have watched her children grow up over the years, "it was important to me that they understand what we went through to become a family," Cassidy said.