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Illinois could allow nurses to perform in-clinic abortions

Illinois lawmakers are considering relaxing licensing laws for health care workers to allow advanced practice nurses and physician assistants to perform abortions.
Credit: AP
FILE - Missouri and American flags fly outside Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, June 24, 2022. On Wednesday, Dec. 28, a judge rejected Missouri lawmakers' efforts to stop Planned Parenthood from receiving any public funding. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois — Illinois legislators are rewriting health care licensing laws to enlist more medical professionals to handle higher caseloads in abortion clinics across the state.

The rush to change the licensing laws stems from abortion restrictions and bans in neighboring states driving patients to seek abortion procedures in Illinois. 

"Their states have cut off access. That's putting an incredible burden on our system," Rep. Kelly Cassidy (D-Chicago) said on Thursday. "We are seeing so many folks coming in from out of state that the residents of Illinois are having trouble getting access to these procedures."

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade set off a scramble between state legislatures where Republicans and Democrats are competing to craft the future of the nation's abortion laws. 

A pair of rival bills in the House and Senate both include provisions to allow roughly 14,000 advanced practice registered nurses and roughly 3,000 physician assistants in Illinois to perform in-clinic abortion procedures. Current law only allows those health care professionals to facilitate medication-based abortion procedures, which typically work through the first eleven weeks of pregnancy. 

Senate Republicans argued against relaxing licensing standards for abortion, suggesting that recruiting lesser qualified health care workers to perform abortion procedures in clinics might put women at risk. 

"Allowing a nurse practitioner or physician's assistant or midwife to perform those kind of procedures is not safe for women," Senator Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro) said. 

The law would only allow nurses or physician assistants to perform abortion procedures where general anesthesia is not required. Advocates at Planned Parenthood said that means doctors would still perform the more labor-intensive surgical abortions. 

The proposal would also offer a legal shield of protection for health care workers in neighboring states who may face punishment or a loss of their medical license for performing abortion procedures. 

"Sort of the core of this bill is creating protections for providers and patients and supporters against the incursion from hostile states who are threatening to criminalize and provide civil penalties, both for patients and providers," Cassidy said. 

Under current law, if a Missouri doctor loses their license for malpractice or some other legal violation, they would also face interruption from licensing in Illinois. This proposal would create a separate class of protection for abortion providers to allow them to perform that care without fear of losing their license in Illinois. It would also create a fast-tracked process for out-of-state providers to seek a temporary license in Illinois, in an attempt to recruit more providers to help handle the state's rising caseload. 

The initial House measure that passed on Sunday would also shield doctors, nurses, and pharmacists from civil suits, subpoenas, or criminal charges, if another state tries to punish them for assisting transgender patients undergoing chemical or surgical procedures.

An early version of the Senate plan did not spell out specific protections for health care workers providing transgender-related health care procedures, prompting House Speaker Chris Welch to call that plan "watered down."

The Senate could debate and vote on an updated version of the abortion proposal before they convene a "lame duck" session on Tuesday. 

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