SPRINGFIELD — Emily Werth says she has seen young people go through "scary and stress-inducing" court hearings so they can get an abortion without having to involve their parents.
The minors routinely express relief after the hearings, in which local judges almost always approve requested waivers of Illinois' parental notification law for minors seeking abortions, according to Werth, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
"There's just an immense amount of anxiety created by having to go through this process," said Werth, who has represented minors in the Chicago area, as well as a "handful" every year in Sangamon County and other central Illinois counties. "They're relieved to be through it and be able to do what is best for them."
The ACLU and other abortion rights advocates see no need for the notification law, which went into effect in 2013, and they expect a legislative effort to ramp up soon during the spring session of the Illinois General Assembly to repeal the law so waivers are unnecessary.
"To ensure all young people in the state can safely access basic health care, Illinois needs to repeal the harmful Parental Notice of Abortion Act," officials from the ACLU and Human Rights Watch wrote in a 73-page report on the law that was released in March.
"Lawmakers have a responsibility to keep Illinois youth safe, and that requires removing unnecessary and dangerous hurdles that interfere with their access to abortion care," the report said.
Opponents, however, said repealing the law is unnecessary. They said they want to promote family involvement whenever possible.
"We're talking about kids," said state Sen. Steve McClure, R-Springfield. "Abortion is a very serious decision."
State Sen. Sue Rezin, R-Morris, said repealing the notification law would be "a travesty for the mental health of our children throughout the state. Leaving young girls alone to make this huge health and life decision without communication or support of their parents and mental health professionals is not just irresponsible, it's reckless."
The parental notification law requires doctors providing care to a person 17 and younger seeking abortion in Illinois to notify a designated family member — a parent, grandparent, stepparent living in the home or legal guardian — at least 48 hours before any procedure.
The law allows minors to avoid the notification requirement by going to court through a process called "judicial bypass." But opponents of the law said the process can be intimidating and logistically challenging for minors.
"Court is normally associated with doing something wrong," Werth said. "Young people have to go in front of a complete stranger who can control their fate."
Supporters of repeal said delays in the judicial bypass process also can cause minors to receive surgical abortions rather than medication abortions.
Not everyone is even aware of the bypass option, and anecdotal evidence is cited in the report that indicates some minors end up notifying their parents rather than go through the process, Werth said.
As a result, she said, some parents force minors to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. Some minors may resort to dangerous or ineffective means to terminate pregnancies. Many fear alienation from their family, becoming homeless or facing physical or emotional abuse.
"The repeal of this law is to protect these young people," said state Rep. Anna Moeller, D-Elgin, sponsor of House Bill 1797, the repeal proposal.
Senate Bill 2190, which contains identical legislation and is expected to be the main vehicle for passage, is sponsored by Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago.
The ACLU/Human Rights Watch report cited an analysis by the Hope Clinic for Women, an abortion provider in Granite City, that indicates 85% of minors seeking abortions involved a parent in their decision-making process before the notification law took effect.
The remaining 15% of minors have legitimate concerns, and those concerns should be heeded, said Moeller, the mother of two teenage daughters.
"This law only affects the people it hurts," she said. "We all want to see healthy parental involvement in their young people's lives. Unfortunately, that's not always possible. The state can't legislate good relationships in families."
Added Terry Cosgrove, president of the Chicago-based pro-choice group Personal PAC, "This was a law in search of a problem that never existed."
The ACLU/Human Rights Watch report said research in Illinois and other states have shown that young people who do not involve a parent in their abortion decision often seek support from "other trusted adults in their lives."
Supporters of the repeal legislation said the notification law's main goal is to reduce the number of abortions regardless of the toll on minors. They expect to win enough votes for repeal in the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, though no Republicans may vote for the measure in Illinois, a state that has reaffirmed its legislative commitment to abortion access in recent years and has a pro-choice governor in Democrat JB Pritzker.
Among the legislation's co-sponsors is House Speaker Emanuel "Chris" Welch, D-Hillside. He sponsored the legislation last year in a session shortened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislation passed a Senate committee in 2020 but never received a vote by the full House or Senate.
The Catholic Conference of Illinois, which represents the state's bishops, including Thomas John Paprocki of Springfield, Daniel Jenky of Peoria and David Malloy of Rockford, said in a news release that repealing the law would be "nothing less than an invasion into the sacred space of family life by the state, with no provision to support the minor emotionally, humanely and materially at a critical moment in her life."
The release said a judicial-bypass hearing in front of a judge "can be emotionally difficult. However, such difficulty must be weighed against the harm done when our laws effectively undermine family life by separating children from the care of parents who love them the most."
The Catholic Conference also said the notification law "provides important safeguards against the evils of sexual abuse and human trafficking. If a minor girl can be taken by any adult man to an abortion clinic in the hopes of erasing the evidence of his abuse, what protection exists outside of the girl's parent or guardian being informed?"
Werth, the ACLU lawyer, said there is no indication that the notification law helps expose sexual abuse or human trafficking.
Illinois is one of 37 states that require parental involvement in a minor's decision to have an abortion. Twenty-one of those states, but not Illinois, require parental consent instead of notification.
Illinois' law originally was enacted in 1995, when the House, Senate and governor's office were controlled by Republicans. Legal challenges prevented the law from taking effect until 2013.
Out of the 42,441 abortions that took place in Illinois in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 1,092 abortions, or 2.6%, involved minor females, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The state did not reveal how many minors in 2018 received the 451 abortions obtained by Sangamon County residents. Details also were not available about the minors among the 585 total abortions obtained by Peoria County residents, the 200 abortions obtained by Tazewell County residents or the 482 abortions obtained by Winnebago County residents.
A group opposing the repeal, Parents for the Protection of Girls, said a public-opinion poll in March of 600 Illinois registered voters by The Tarrance Group, a Republican research firm, indicated that 72% of voters believe a parent or guardian should be notified if a minor girl is seeking an abortion.
"Nearly three-quarters of the people in the state of Illinois are opposed to repealing our parental notice law," a news release from the group said.
Cosgrove said he said the poll was biased. He noted that abortion is the only reproductive health-related medical service in Illinois in which minors' parents must be notified before it can be provided.
To be granted judicial bypass, Werth said minors must prove in closed court hearings that they are mature and informed enough to decide on abortion without parental involvement and/or that parental involvement is not in their "best interests."
Weth said the ACLU's attorneys and pro bono lawyers around the state represent minors for free in the judicial-bypass process, and many find these lawyers through abortion providers, the website ilbypass.org and by calling (877) 442-9727. The lawyers have represented more than 550 minors since 2013, and only one minor among them was denied judicial bypass by a judge, she said.
Minors have "very different reasons for not wanting to tell their parents" about their desire for an abortion, but the minors are consistently "well-informed and determined and mature in approaching this decision," Werth said.
McClure, as well as Sen. Sally Turner, R-Beason, and Reps. Tim Butler and Mike Murphy, both Springfield Republicans, all said they would vote against repeal of the notification law. Sen. Doris Turner, D-Springfield, and Rep. Sue Scherer, D-Decatur, did not return phone calls from The State Journal-Register.
Murphy said, "This is a situation where, as a society, we need to encourage family involvement, not discourage it."
Sally Turner said it is a "good thing" if the notification law results in fewer abortions.
The stress on minors seeking judicial bypass should be balanced against the negative effects that minors may encounter after getting an abortion, she said.