National Catholic Register


Now, Local FOCA

Illinois Considers Its Own Freedom of Choice Act



April 12-18, 2009 Issue | Posted 4/3/09 at 11:05 AM


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Those who are worried about the federal Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) should look to a similar bill now moving through the Illinois Legislature.

Catholic hospitals, doctors and nurses, and anyone with a conscientious objection to participating in abortions have a lot to fear if the bill is passed.

Not only that, opponents of the bill predict a drastic increase in abortions because it provides for broad latitude in the way the government advocates, promotes and pays for the procedure. In 2007 there were nearly 46,000 abortions in Illinois.

The Reproductive Health and Access Act, Illinois House Bill 2354, was introduced in February at the urging of abortion-supporting agencies such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. It mirrors the federal Freedom of Choice Act that the Obama administration supports.

Dubbed “Illinois FOCA,” the state bill sweeps away any limitations on abortion and makes it a fundamental human right protected in law by the state government.

The bill, which has passed through formal readings, a major committee hearing and the addition of some weak amendments that try to quell the opposition, is set to be voted on by the entire House of Representatives in early April. The bill would invalidate the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act that currently allows health-care workers to invoke a conscience exception to avoid providing abortions without any recriminations from the government or their employers.

The act bars the passage of state laws on parental consent, informed consent and waiting periods; insists on taxpayer-funded abortions through Medicaid; and mandates comprehensive and “age-appropriate” sex education in all Illinois public schools from kindergarten through high school, replacing the abstinence-based programs which have been in place for many years.

How to correctly employ a condom would be as crucial as knowing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the Periodic Table of Elements for graduates of Illinois’ government schools.

The bill has about 50 votes in the House, but needs 60 to pass.

‘If We Allow One Step’

There are Catholic sponsors of the bill, and there are also Catholic legislators who plan to vote against it, including Patricia Bellock, R-47th District, who represents the western suburbs of Chicago. “I am strongly opposed to this legislation because it takes the right of conscience away from health-care providers,” Bellock said. “You don’t even have to be pro-life or Catholic to see that this is wrong.”

Pro-abortion Catholic Kathleen Ryg, D-59th District, from northern Illinois plans to vote for the bill, though she said she is interested in seeing some amendment to protect conscientious objectors to abortion.

She invokes her own conscience, educated in Catholic schools, to explain her support for abortion. “We were taught to think for yourself and to inform yourself,” Ryg said. “I believe in a woman’s right to choice based on her faith and her medical needs.” Ryg said information provided by the dissenting group Catholics for a Free Choice also helped to form her conscience.

Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, joined by other religious leaders, has led the opposition. In a letter sent to all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Chicago and inserted in parish bulletins and read from the pulpit in some churches, the cardinal expressed his outrage at the attacks on conscience and the Church’s healing ministry. “This proposed law will drive Catholic doctors and nurses from health care and will make it impossible for Catholic hospitals to continue to be places where life is always respected, where no one is deliberately killed. ... Why do some Illinois legislators want to take away conscientious objection to abortion?” asked the cardinal.

Metropolitan Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Chicago wrote to his people, “None of us wants the government to come between us and our doctor. We should likewise not want the government to come between health-care workers and their God. If we allow one step, we will never prevent the next.”

Father Ed Pelrine, pastor of Queen of the Rosary Parish in Elk Grove Village, near O’Hare International Airport, has seen his parishioners become motivated to fight the bill after he launched an all-out offensive against it. “People are fired up about it, angry about it,” Father Pelrine said. “We are getting a lot of good response to our efforts to educate the parish.”

Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, which monitors the state Legislature on behalf of Illinois’ bishops, said that pro-abortion political action committees spent $1.1 million in the fall of 2008 to elect pro-abortion legislators. They want results, Gilligan said. He called H.B. 2354 “the worst bill I have ever seen since starting at the conference in 2003.” And he added that the Church does not have any money to fight the bill, but is relying on “serious grassroots opposition to plead with legislators to respect our moral consciences.”

Hippocratic Oath

The Catholic Physicians’ Guild of Chicago sent a letter signed by 71 doctors and nurses urging a vote against the bill. “We conscientiously object to any material participation in abortion and other objectionable practices, including referrals, and it is our understanding that amendments being discussed still require these practices,” the letter stated. “We view abortion as the immoral taking of innocent human life, and we object to these provisions.”

Dr. Steven Conti, who works at two Catholic hospitals in Illinois, called the law “blatantly anti-Catholic” and is urging all doctors to fight against its adoption. “We Catholic doctors do not regard pregnancy as an illness; it’s a natural condition,” Conti said. “I took the Hippocratic Oath to never provide an abortifacient to women, and I intend to keep it.”

The Illinois Catholic Health Care Association also sent a letter signed by 27 leaders of health-care systems and hospitals across Illinois asking for a No vote on the grounds that it does not protect the right of conscience of workers in their institutions. The letter stated, “H.B. 2354 represents a radical departure from current Illinois law by forcing health-care workers to participate in objectionable procedures like abortion for fear of losing their employment.”

Gov. Patrick Quinn, a self-described “devout Roman Catholic,” who recently replaced the impeached former governor, Rod Blagojevich, has not signaled how he would respond if the bill reaches his desk.

A vote was expected April 3, but according to the Illinois Catholic Conference, there seemed to be enough votes to stop it.

Jesuit Father Matthew Gamber

writes from Wilmette, Illinois.

The progress of the bill can be followed at a website created to oppose the bill: and through the Catholic Conference of Illinois website: