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Judge dismisses public-pay abortion challenge, appeal next

SPRINGFIELD – An Illinois judge dealt a blow to anti-abortion groups Thursday, dismissing a lawsuit aimed at stopping a law that’s about to take effect that would expand Medicaid and state-employee group health insurance to cover abortions.

Associate Circuit Judge Jennifer Ascher ruled that the judiciary should not intervene in “political questions” in the General Assembly, such as a law’s effective date or whether there’s an appropriation to fund it.

Those are the pillars of the lawsuit seeking to stop the law from taking effect Monday. It was filed by the Catholic Thomas More Society on behalf of 11 conservative and Christian groups and a dozen legislators.

State Rep. Peter Breen, a Republican from Lombard and special counsel to the Thomas More Society, said he will appeal the ruling on Friday in Springfield’s 4th District Appellate Court and seek the same injunction he sought from Ascher.

Breen argued that lawmakers passed the measure too late in the year for it to take effect Jan. 1 and that they didn’t appropriate funding to cover the cost of the abortions through the publicly funded insurance plans. Despite the ruling, he remained upbeat after the hearing.

“After today’s argument, I’m more confident than ever in the truth and the correctness of our position,” Breen said. “I heard nothing today ... that caused me to think that somehow, the General Assembly has done its job any more than it had a few days ago.”

John Wolfsmith, an assistant attorney general representing the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services and other defendants, claimed Breen’s clients simply are trying to buy time by delaying the law’s implementation to June 1.

The law, signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner in September, expands Medicaid and state group health insurance plans to cover abortions.

Breen contends that taxpayers will be billed for 30,000 elective abortions annually in Illinois. They will cost $1.8 million, according to the state health care agency.

Democrats in the General Assembly initially sold the measure as a way to keep abortion legal in Illinois if a U.S. Supreme Court, bolstered by anti-abortion justices President Donald Trump has promised to appoint, reverses the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

After Roe, Illinois restricted public funding for abortions under the 1977 Hyde Amendment – named for Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde – to women who were victims of rape or incest or in cases where pregnancy endangers a mother’s life.

More than two dozen states follow the Hyde Amendment, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group supporting abortion rights. But a state can use the state portion of Medicaid state-federal program funding for women seeking abortions for other reasons. Seventeen states do that, 13 because of a court order.

The issue generated a subplot when Rauner signed the plan in September. The private equity investor ran for governor in 2014 supporting abortion rights and maintaining that he had no social agenda.

But after signaling last spring that he would veto it, his signature so infuriated conservatives that he invited a primary challenge from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a Republican from Wheaton who is a plaintiff in the abortion-funding case.

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