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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 01:54 am

After Roe

Illinois' leading abortion-rights advocates are gearing up for a fight, despite the state's recent trend to the political left.

Sure, they say, pro-choice Democrats currently operate almost every lever of state government, and polls show that a majority of Illinois voters support a woman's right to choose.

And, yes, voters just elected a progressive Democrat to the U.S. Senate over a right-wing extremist who likened abortion to state-sponsored terrorism.

But all this does nothing to allay the concerns of pro-choice advocates, some of whom predict Illinois will soon be targeted by an intense national campaign to outlaw abortions in the state.

"People better wake up and realize that the right to choose is going, going, and about to be gone," says Terry Cosgrove, president and CEO of Chicago-based Personal PAC, which works to elect pro-choice candidates to local and statewide offices.

Since President George W. Bush's re-election, there has been much hand-wringing by liberals over whether his administration will attempt to change federal laws governing abortion.

With several Supreme Court justices likely to retire, it is widely believed that Bush will stack the country's most powerful judiciary with justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade -- the court's landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. Such a move would allow individual states to impose their own abortion laws.

But Cosgrove insists it's not a matter of if Roe v. Wade will be reversed. Rather, it's a matter of 'when': "It's not just a possibility," he says. "It's going to happen."

The reversal of Roe v. Wade would put women in three-fifths of all states at risk of losing their right to choose abortion, according to a study by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights.

Many conservative states, such as nearby Missouri, would likely adopt constitutional amendments banning abortion and even make it a felony crime to help a woman cross state lines to have the procedure.

The immediate impact of reversing Roe is less certain for Illinois, according to the center's state-by-state analysis.

There is no abortion ban to reinstate in Illinois if Roe is overturned, the report says. Also, such a ban could be found unconstitutional because a lower-court decision recognized constitutional protection for abortion.

"Illinois is a state that supports basic rights for women to choose abortion," says House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago.

"Over time, I think Illinois would move in a pro-choice direction even if the federal courts overturned Roe v. Wade."

But Brigid Leahy, vice president of the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, is less hopeful. Though she is unable to provide specific numbers, Leahy says the Illinois House is split over abortion. In the state Senate, she says, the Democratic leadership is pro-choice, but a majority of rank-and-file lawmakers oppose abortion rights.

"We are at risk here in Illinois," says Leahy, who expects further restrictions to be placed on abortions in coming years.

Cosgrove agrees, adding that the election of just a few more anti-choice legislators could be enough to tip the balance in favor of a statewide ban on abortion in Illinois.

Unlike the small clusters of states on both coasts that favor abortion rights -- among them California, Oregon, and Washington and New York, Massachusetts, and Vermont -- Illinois is one of the few states in the nation's heartland that leans pro-choice. As a result, says Cosgrove, the federal government would likely work to influence the Illinois General Assembly to fall in line with the rest of the region.

"They will chip away at this incrementally," he says. "It will turn into a tremendous witch hunt."

Such premonitions have pro-life groups ready to pounce.

Sondra McEnroe, a board member for the Peoria-based central-Illinois chapter of the Illinois Federation for Right to Life, says the organization already has plans to increase lobbying efforts in Springfield for anti-abortion legislation.

"Our society is being destroyed; our families are being destroyed," says McEnroe, whose group issues a quarterly newsletter to thousands of households across the region. "We could save women from tremendous trauma and guilt and save thousands of babies' lives."

Though the future of abortion-rights remains unknown in Illinois and across the country, pro-choice advocates know one thing for certain: A reversal of Roe will result in mass demonstrations across the state. They only hope such efforts don't arrive too late.

"Illinois is pro-choice," says Leahy, "but right now the public does not feel its right to choose is being threatened.

"Sometimes the situation has to get really bad for people to stand up for what they believe in."

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