CHICAGO — A new law in Illinois weakens existing protections for religious liberty and conscience rights for hospitals, doctors and nurses — and could even force staff of crisis-pregnancy centers to promote abortion, according to local pro-life advocates.

“We’re arm-twisted by this law to go against our very own morals and consciences,” said Kathy Bozyk, who operates the Southside Pregnancy Center in Chicago.

At issue is a bill signed into law at the end of July by Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, that amends Illinois’ Health Care Right of Conscience Act, mandating that pro-life doctors, nurses and staff at crisis-pregnancy centers present abortion as a legal treatment option by discussing its benefits with women who say that they want abortions and referring such women to medical professionals and facilities that perform the procedure, according to Emily Zender, executive director of Illinois Right to Life.

The law affects pregnancy centers because they offer ultrasounds. “It forces them to violate their very mission that their organization was founded upon. It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Zender said.

Illinois has 104 crisis-pregnancy centers, according to Zender.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) announced on Aug. 5 that it had filed a lawsuit in state court against Rauner on behalf of The Pregnancy Care Center of Rockford.

“No state should attempt to rob women of the right to choose a pro-life doctor by forcing pro-life physicians and entities to make or arrange abortion referrals. What’s even worse is that Illinois did this by amending a law designed specifically to protect freedom of conscience,” Matt Bowman, ADF senior counsel, said in a news release. “The governor should have vetoed this bill for many reasons, including its incompatibility with Illinois law and the state constitution, which specifically protects freedom of conscience and free speech.”

The Thomas More Society, which is based in Chicago, also plans a lawsuit as soon as it finds a plaintiff, according to Thomas Olp, the law society’s co-executive director.

A spokesman for Rauner did not respond to a request for comment.

Zender noted that Rauner signed the bill into law even though GOP lawmakers opposed it.

“It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating, but the game’s not over,” added Bozyk. “We’re going to keep fighting this.”


‘We’re Not Going to Comply’

In mandating that she discuss the benefits of abortion, Bozyk said the law forces her to go against everything she knows and believes. As someone who, as a young woman, experienced an abortion, she says there are no “benefits” to abortion, which in her view not only takes the life of the unborn child, but also hurts women and families.

For women who come to her center and leave still wanting an abortion, Bozyk says she recommends they see their doctors. She absolutely refuses to refer those women to a doctor who performs abortions or a center where the procedure is done.

“We’re not going to comply with that,” she said. “How can we?”

“I honor God more than I fear the law,” she added.

Bozyk also faulted the law for its lack of reciprocity. While she says she must now discuss the alleged benefits of abortion and refer women to abortion providers, abortion businesses are not required to make referrals to crisis-pregnancy centers.

By mandating referrals, Zender said, the law also demeans women. “Personally, as a woman, I’m offended that these politicians and Gov. Rauner believe that women are too unintelligent to find an abortion clinic on their own,” she said.


Catholic Conference Perspective

The law also faces opposition from the Catholic Conference of Illinois. “We’re disappointed that the governor signed the bill,” said Robert Gilligan, executive director of the conference.

But he offered a far less bleak assessment of its impact than Zender did. He said the originally proposed version of the law, which was known as S.B. 1564 before Rauner signed it, would have “obliterated” the state’s conscience law, which was once the strongest state law of its kind in the country, according to Gilligan.

He said the Catholic Conference was able to negotiate, with opposing parties, a revision to the original bill that the state’s 43 Catholic hospitals can live with. He said the final version that was signed into law gives staff at hospitals and other health-care facilities three options when a patient requests a service that they consider morally objectionable: refer to another place that does the procedure, transfer the woman or provide written information on where to find such a facility.

He said the third option is so broadly defined that it will allow local Catholic hospitals to continue to operate according to Church teaching without violating state law. He said co-sponsors of the bill said even simply ripping out the pages of a phone book with names of all the local OB-GYNs in a certain area would be enough to comply.

“There’s a thing in Catholic teaching about your relationship to evil. Is it remote cooperation with evil? It is material? I mean, how close are you to the actual evil being done?” Gilligan said. “We’ve come to the conclusion that it’s pretty remote if the only thing the law does is require you to rip out pages of the phone book — if a person requests that. If they don’t request it, you don’t have to do anything.”

Although most of the debate over the contested law has centered on its implications on the abortion issue, Gilligan noted it applies to any medical procedure that any facility or any individual doctor or nurse finds objectionable, such as emergency contraception.


Lack of Clarity

One reason Gilligan and Zender offered such different assessments of the law’s impact seems to be its vagueness. For example, Zender said it’s unclear under what circumstances abortion would have to be offered as a legal treatment option. The law also does not offer guidance on what benefits should be discussed, nor does it specify the procedures for referrals, Zender said.

“This bill is so poorly written that we can’t say exactly what it will do,” Zender said.

Gilligan said he is not aware of similar laws in other states.

Regardless of its precise implications, the new law appears to reflect a shift in how the broader public’s view of conscience rights — as expressed through the votes of their representatives — has shifted since the late 1990s, when the Illinois law was last amended.

“I think it’s important to point out this is how Illinois has changed since 1997 to the present. We had … widespread support for strong conscience protections,” Gilligan said. “Today? [It’s] going the other way.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.