Mary Catherine Roberson, chair of the Danville chapter of Personal Pac, warns, “do not take it for granted that because you live in Illinois, you are safe. If the anti-abortion forces start organizing in your town, reach out to Personal Pac for support.”
As soon as the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision on June 24, 2022, Indiana enacted a new total ban on abortion. After lawsuits against it were cleared away by the Indiana Supreme Court, it went into effect on August 1, causing the considerable flow of abortion seekers from Indiana to Illinois to further increase.
The Clinic for Women in Indianapolis, owned by LaDonna Prince for 25 years, anticipating the Indiana ban, leased property for a new clinic in Danville in February, 2023. The largest town close to the border (eight miles), Danville is an easy drive from Indianapolis (85 miles) on I-74.
The first public outcry against the clinic was on March 27, when a group met in front of the site of the clinic to protest it. Speakers included the chairman of the Freedom Caucus of the Illinois state legislature, IL Rep. Chris Miller (R-Oakland); Illinois Right to Life director Mary Kate Zander; and Mark Lee Dickson, director of Right to Life East Texas and founder of the Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn initiative. First Baptist Church of Danville pastor Paul Rebert spoke on behalf of some of the other Christians in the community who are anti-abortion.
Citizens of Danville were not alarmed, as they thought that the clinic-to-be could not be stopped, since Illinois law guarantees all reproductive rights without restriction.
Dickson made more visits to Danville, organizing some members of the city council and the mayor to back an ordinance he claimed to have installed in 65 other cities across the South and Midwest. However, these cities appear to all be in states where abortion is illegal or greatly restricted. His prepared legislation prohibits the mailing of the drug mifepristone, used in pregnancy terminations and other abortion paraphernalia, into the town in question. It relies on the federal Comstock Act of 1873, that prohibited mailing obscene literature through the mail; at that time, obscenity included information about contraception or abortion. Thus, the ordinance from Texas appears not to ban abortion, yet makes it impossible to carry out. Where the legislation has passed locally, in other states, Dickson has declared the city a “sanctuary for the unborn.”
Of course, in the case of Danville, the local government would be enacting a law that contradicts the law of the state of Illinois. It became clear to the public that this was exactly what was intended.
On May 9, the night that the city council met to consider this ordinance, people from both sides had organized to be inside the council room, but the anti-abortion forces, including many people from Indiana, got there first (two hours early) and filled the council room. Others sat in the hallways and on the stairs, while protesters from both sides filled the sidewalk for a block. Speeches went on for over four hours. Three different lawyers who had worked, or were currently working, as legal counsel for the city council advised that passage of the law would be illegal and result in bankruptcy for the town due to lawsuits against the city.
The anti-abortion Right to Life advisors from Texas, there in person, responded with an amendment, stating that the ordinance will not go into effect until the city “obtains a declaratory judgement from a court.” The ordinance passed, with the amendment, with Mayor Rickey Williams, Jr. casting the tie-breaking vote. The amendment would seem to offer Danville protection from lawsuits and renders the ordinance symbolic. But its passage sent a message that was heard by both sides.
“We were all disheartened, outraged and surprised by the passage of the ordinance, the amendment notwithstanding. We had thought it would surely be stopped, but now we had to organize. The women in Indianapolis are still determined to open the clinic,” said Ms. Roberson.
A man named Phillip Buyno, 73, from Prophetstown in northwestern Illinois, heard the message as a call to try to destroy the property leased to the clinic. He had been previously arrested on charges of trying to damage an abortion clinic in Peoria in January. On May 20, at 4:00 in the morning, he rammed his car into the clinic, front to back, several times before his car got stuck and he could not get out. He had kerosene and matches in the car and told the police that he was there to burn the place down. Buyno has had several hearings at the federal courthouse in Urbana by video from the Livingston County Jail. While he was initially charged with terrorism, his trial will be on the sole charge of attempted arson, and was set to begin on August 15, in this same location. Right to Life East Texas’s Dickson has disclaimed any affiliation with Buyno and condemned his actions.
Two weeks after the attack, an unidentified man entered the premises from the back during the daytime and attempted to do more damage to the interior. He was caught on surveillance camera. Police were called to the scene, but did not fill out a report, according to US Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Matteson). In a public letter of June 16, she stated, “I have shared information about these attacks with the White House and stand ready to request the FBI’s assistance in investigating these terrorizing attacks.”
The FBI seems to have taken over both cases, the second one without publicity. Freedom of Information Act requests to the Danville police chief about each of these cases of vandalism twice brought this response: “Due to coordinating efforts with federal authorities, we will not be releasing information at this time. The initial release of information will come from either the FBI or the US Attorney’s Office once they have a press release prepared.”
Since the attacks, East Texas Right to Life claims to be attempting the same local legislative maneuver in Quincy and Carbondale, other border towns with existing or planned abortion clinics. However, Carbondale passed a bodily autonomy ordinance on July 11, stating “the City will respect and protect the fundamental right of individuals to make autonomous decisions about medical care for persons seeking services that have been prohibited by other jurisdictions.” It protects out-of-state visitors from extradition.
The forces for reproductive justice and upholding women’s rights under the law have been active in Danville since the days preceding the ordinance’s passage in May. During the summer, Midwest Access Coalition held an area-wide Zoom meeting, and Personal Pac has held other meetings of its Danville chapter.
Roberson said that they will be organizing a showing in August of the film The Janes, about the underground network of women in the pre-Roe era who provided free illegal abortions to around 11,000 women. This will be followed by a canvassing campaign to increase the voting turnout for the next City Council election in 2025. Ms. Roberson states, “we are working through the municipal elections in 2024 to ensure those elected to City Council reflect the wishes of our community.”
Personal Pac is a statewide organization whose non-partisan mission is to elect pro-choice candidates who will protect the right to choose. The Indianapolis women have opened up a GoFundMe website for rebuilding the Danville clinic site.
Barbara Kessel (she/her), a native of Danville and a graduate of the U of I and Johns Hopkins, has been a community activist/volunteer in Urbana around issues of criminal justice, the county jail, and the Illinois prison system for the past two decades.
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