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Abortion access challenged by Danville ordinance

A crowd of protests both pro-choice and anti-choice are gathered outside of the Danville City Council building in protest.
Barbara Kessel

On May 2, 2023, the Danville City Council voted on an ordinance designed to prohibit abortion within the city limits. The ordinance draws on 19th century federal laws, and would ban shipping and sales of medicines and paraphernalia used in abortion care within the City of Danville. The move came in response to a women’s clinic attempting to relocate from Indianapolis to Danville. The clinic would offer abortion care in addition to a range of other reproductive healthcare. 

Outside City Hall demonstrators for and against the ordinance gathered, with no seam in the middle. The west third of the parkway between the council building and the street was a contingent of well-dressed teenage boys from Notre Dame de LaSalette Boys Academy, a Catholic boarding school in Georgetown, Illinois, holding printed signs such as, “Pray for an End to Abortions,” and “Pray for the Unborn.” A priest in his robes supervised chants in Latin. 

There was not a woman to be seen until you reached the door of the building, where suddenly the protestors were almost entirely women, with a sprinkling of men, perhaps seven or eight out of one hundred. Those supporting abortion access and healthcare equity outnumbered the anti-abortion protestors by three to two. These protesters held signs such as “Keep your religion out of my uterus,” and chanted “Two-four-six-eight, separation of church and state.” There were fists in the air, and people jumping up and down and shouting on the women’s side. This bifurcated enthusiasm and dedication went on unabated from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m.

Inside City Hall two dozen people mingled in the foyer and stairwell with phones to their ears, listening to the speakers downstairs. The council chambers and a side room had been filled to capacity before the meeting even began. 

Downstairs in council chambers was a starkly different picture than what was happening outside. Here the speakers against abortion outnumbered those in support of abortion access. They were more polished and well-rehearsed generally; ten speakers self-identified as residents of Indiana. Some spoke about the clinic in Indianapolis that has a contract to come to Danville and open an abortion clinic, saying that the clinic had code violations and would be bad for the economy. One Indiana nurse claimed that Danville would have added expenses from ambulances called to take botched abortions to the hospital and policemen to control the crowds outside the clinic. 

After an opponent of the ordinance from Vermilion County spoke, Danville Mayor Ricky Williams, chair of the meeting, stated, “We will have no more speakers from outside of Danville.” But when the next speaker was an anti-abortion man from Texas, the mayor allowed him to go ahead.  

Intermittently through the four-hour meeting, legal counsel spoke to remind council members that the ordinance they were considering violated state and federal law, and would cost the city a great deal in lawsuits. These included Chaundra White, an ACLU of Illinois attorney; Pat Wolgamot, a former Danville city attorney; and the current Danville city attorney, James Simon. 

The ordinance claims that the State of Illinois is in violation of federal law and the Comstock Act. After lawyers made clear that was not the case, the City Council made an amendment stating, “This [ordinance] shall take effect when the city of Danville obtains a declaratory judgment from a court that it may enact and enforce an ordinance requiring compliance with the abortion related provisions.” In short: It is a trigger law, waiting for a higher court to outlaw abortion, or declare abortion medication such as mifepristone illegal.

Both the initial ordinance and the amendment passed 8-7, with the mayor providing the tie-breaking vote both times. Alderman Darren York, who voted for the ordinance and its amendment, stated, “Change needs to start somewhere.” 

One of several local organizers to organize advocates for abortion access, Sue Misner of Rossville, summarized this way: “Danville is being used as a test case by national forces to challenge the Illinois Reproductive Health Care Act, recently signed by Governor Pritzker.” 

Health equity advocates anticipate more such challenges to Illinois’ protections in towns across the state as surrounding states continue to ban access to abortion and gender-affirming care.

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