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An Illinois town is becoming an abortion hub. Some locals are opposed to new clinics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As states across the country greatly restrict or ban abortion access, one town in southern Illinois is grappling with its complicated past around the issue. At the same time, it's becoming a hub for abortion services for millions across the Midwest and South. From Saint Louis Public Radio, Bryan Munoz reports.

BRYAN MUNOZ, BYLINE: Carbondale, Ill., is a rural college town many likely don't realize they know. Reportedly it's a place actor John Belushi created the college shirt he wears in the 1978 film "Animal House," as his brother was a student at Southern Illinois University, the largest employer in the region. The small city of 22,000 is six hours south of Chicago, roughly an hour from Illinois' southern border, and in a region that has a lot in common with its southern neighbors.

PAIGE DYCUS: We're like the south of the north, so if that makes any sense, you know. Like, we still have some, I would say, like, more conservative-type-leaning policies, like, attitudes towards most things. But we are in Illinois.

MUNOZ: That's Paige Dycus from neighboring Herrin, Ill. She says that means Carbondale is more supportive of abortion rights. Dycus, along with hundreds of residents, stretched out on blankets during a recent summer concert at a local park. Within the next few months, Carbondale will be home to what will likely be the closest abortion provider for people seeking services in the Midwest and South. Carbondale resident Belinda Johnson says, while she considers herself anti-abortion, she thinks the decision should be left up to an individual.

BELINDA JOHNSON: A woman should be in control of her own body. If she chooses to have an abortion for her own personal reasons, I don't think it should be a problem.

MUNOZ: The belief that the decision should be up to a patient is common here and is shared by the majority of Americans, according to recent polling. The recent resounding vote in Kansas striking down a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have stripped away abortion protections is consistent with the finding. Other states are relatively short drive from Carbondale, including Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas, Indiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. All have enacted extensive restrictions or total bans on abortion, despite restrictions in surrounding states. Illinois is one of a handful that have expanded abortion access since Roe was overturned. The right to the procedure was enshrined in state law back in 2019.

Jennifer Pepper heads CHOICES, a reproductive health clinic based in Memphis. She plans to expand in Carbondale in the coming months, making it a regional oasis for abortion services.

JENNIFER PEPPER: You know, I was staring at a map and it just kind of all came to me, and said to my team, I think it's this town in Carbondale.

MUNOZ: Depending on when the clinic opens, it will become the first or second here to offer elective abortion care in decades. In 1985, anti-abortion doctors and nurses petitioned the board of Carbondale Memorial Hospital, the largest in the region, to stop the practice. And the board voted to do so. George Maroney was a hospital administrator at the time. He's now retired.

GEORGE MARONEY: It was just the pressure of people in the community. And board members are easily pressured.

MUNOZ: As before, some in Carbondale and its surrounding communities aren't happy about the prospect of the town's new role in the abortion debate. Abortion opponents from the region testified at a recent city council meeting in hopes that politicians would find a way to intervene and keep any new clinics from opening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I do not want to see an abortion clinic here either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am against abortion.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And please don't bring death to this city and to our region.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And this is going to haunt you the rest of your life.

MUNOZ: Carbondale City Councilman Adam Loos has pushed back on the opposition.

ADAM LOOS: What they've been told is that there is nothing that we can do. And what I've told them, speaking for myself, rather than for the city, is that even if there were something, I wouldn't participate in that, and I don't think there's a majority for it.

MUNOZ: While the immediate impact that new abortion clinics will have on Carbondale isn't clear, advocates are welcoming them as the city becomes a draw for those seeking abortion services throughout a large part of the region. For NPR News, I'm Bryan Munoz in Carbondale, Ill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Munoz