No Choice for Poor Women: Cook County — Back to Coathangers

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No Choice for Poor Women: Cook County — Back to Coathangers

by The Reproductive Rights National Network

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 3, May-June 1981, p. 28 — 29

This article was adapted with permission from the Reproductive Rights Newsletter, Fall 1980. For orders or subscriptions write RRN, 1032 West Altgeld, Chicago, IL 60614. RRN is published by the Reproductive Rights National Network, 41 Union Square West, New York, N.Y. 10003. 

The “New Right vs. Women’s Rights”, a pamphlet by Women Organized For Reproductive Choice, examines the interconnections between the anti-choice movement and the New Right. Includes a two-page chart showing the ties between these two groups. The authors take a look at the tactics, goals, and progress of the New Right. Especially timely since the 1980 elections. Available from Women Organized For Reproductive Choice, Box A 3423, Chicago, IL 60690 for $2.00 single copy, $1.50 for 10 or more copies prepaid. 

In a stunning setback to the poor and minority women of Chicago, Cook County Board President George Dunne unilaterally stopped all abortion services October 9 at Cook County Hospital. Stating, “The hospital should not be an abortion mill,” Dunne has forbidden the medical staff to perform any abortions except to save the life of the mother. This eliminates both elective and medically necessary abortions. 

Besides its obvious racist and discriminatory nature, the decision is seen by hospital workers as another attack on the ability of the hospital to provide top quality services that its patients need. Ironically, Dunne cited the severe nursing shortage and implied that the eight nurses from the hospital’s abortion clinic would be reassigned to the intensive care unit. In reality, County Hospital has had over 300 unfilled nursing positions for months. Meanwhile, Dunne has refused to recognize the existing unions of nurses and other hospital workers and delayed signing of a bill which would increase wages near the standard and enable the hospital to recruit more nurses. Dunne’s other claim, that this would merely comply with the Hyde Amendment and an even more restrictive Illinois law, is equally preposterous. Neither federal nor state law forbids any county or municipal area from funding full abortion services and County Hospital never billed for Medicaid abortions anyway simply due to redtape. 

Cook County Hospital, Chicago’s only public hospital, has performed 3500 abortions yearly. Prior to the legalization of abortion in 1973, an entire 50-bed ward at County was devoted solely to treatment of “septic abortions,” women with bleeding or infection due to self-induced or back alley abortions. Two of the city’s nine private abortion clinics have agreed to provide abortions to low-income women on a sliding scale, at least temporarily. For thousands of poor women in Chicago, however, there is essentially no longer any reproductive choice. Within a week of the stoppage, a young Latina woman was admitted to County with an uterine infection secondary to an attempt at self-induced abortion. Meanwhile sterilizations at the hospital continue to be funded. 

A coalition to fight for abortion at the public hospital was formed the same day Dunne’s order went into effect. Members of the coalition include Chicago Women Organized for Reproductive Choice (R2N2), Illinois Welfare Rights, Midwest Women’s Center, Planned Parenthood, National Abortions Rights Action League, Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, the Lawyer’s Guild, house staff and nurses from County Hospital, and lawyers from the woman’s law project of the Legal Aid Foundation (who argued Williams vs. Zbaraz before the U.S. Supreme Court at the same time as the McRae Decision). 

On October 20 over 200 angry women and men from the community and the coalition packed the regularly scheduled County Board meeting to demand that Dunne’s order be reversed. Although the issue of abortion cutbacks was originally not even on the meeting’s agenda, members of the pro-choice coalition forced the Board to allow them to make statements condemning Dunne’s action which were widely covered on TV and radio. Eventually the Board deferred the final decision to a subcommittee and agreed to hold public hearings.

The spirit of the public hearings on November 24, 1980 was dampened by the Chairperson of the Hospital Subcommittee’s statement, “ These women (pro-choice) can ventilate their feelings but no amount of emotionalism is going to change our minds.” During the hearings a number of Board members voiced their concern for women whose pregnancies were a result of rape or incest, for young pregnant girls, and for women whose pregnancies would expose them to undue health risks. Despite these concerns, the Board voted to uphold Dunne’s decision.

How does this affect the poor women whose main access to health care is Cook County Hospital? Out of desperation, a small percentage of women are resorting to illegal abortions. At least five women have been admitted to Cook County Hospital for complications due to self-induced or illegal abortions since Dunne’s decision. A large percent of women are scraping up enough money to pay for a legal abortion. The rest are having babies. But the statistics do not really show the impact this decision has had on the lives of the women, the loss of control over their lives, their feelings of desperation and fear. 

After the hearings, the ad hoc coalition joined a permanent coalition of women’s organizations, the Illinois Pro-Choice Alliance, to continue the struggle to reinstate abortion services at County Hospital. The first step of the Pro-Choice Alliance is to meet with County Commissioners who are seen as being sympathetic. With pressure from the community, it is hoped that abortions will be allowed for rape and incest victims and for medical necessity. The medical committee of County Hospital is preparing a medical-necessity clause based on the McRae Decision to present to the Commissioners. Viewing the abortion service cutback as a denial of a public health right, the Committee to Save Cook County Hospital is continuing its support, by discussing the issue at public meetings and writing articles in its newsletter. By organizing both within the hospital and in the community the coalition is building a firm base from which to launch further attacks at Dunne and the Board of Commissioners. 

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