One Midwest town grapples with idea of becoming a haven for abortion access
Carbondale, Illinois, is set to become the closest place with abortion access for millions of residents in Missouri and the South.
CARBONDALE, Ill. — Addison Pesek sits on the curb of a 1950s-era Dairy Queen, the small ice cream shop’s neon glow washing over her and her family on a recent summer evening.
Dozens of local residents wait in line to order from the Carbondale staple as the 22-year-old enjoys a cup of ice cream with her 5-year-old daughter Kinley in her lap, murmuring how she’s excited to start school in the fall.
“I want to learn about space,” Kinley says. “I want to be an astronaut.”
Pesek says she was very young when she had her first child, but a stable support system is what got her through challenging times. She said she realizes not everyone has the same privilege and is all too familiar with Carbondale’s latest hot-button debate — abortion clinics coming to town.
"I personally believe that it would be a good decision," she said of the possibility of abortion providers choosing to open clinics in Carbondale. “At the end of the day, it’s your body. As a woman, we have to go through that, nobody else.”
Heather Pesek, Addison’s mother, is a patient care technician at a local hospital and said she is more conflicted. “I don't believe in abortion,” the emergency room technician said, adding that discussing the topic has been taboo in some southern Illinois circles. “It is kind of a quiet subject.”
Heather and Addison's belief that the decision should be up to the individual is common here. And it's shared by the majority of Americans, according to recent polling. Tuesday’s resounding vote in Kansas against a state constitutional amendment that would have stripped away abortion protections is consistent with that finding.
Carbondale is set to become the closest place to seek an abortion for millions of residents throughout the Midwest and South, following the June U.S. Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, which gave states authority to restrict abortion access.
Illinois’ Democratic supermajority enshrined abortion rights through state law in 2019 in response to restrictions other states had been imposing. Gov. J.B. Pritzker doubled down after the Dobbs decision, vowing to expand abortion rights and ensure the state will “support every woman’s right to reproductive freedom.”
Abortion access has been stymied in neighboring states, making the Land of Lincoln a haven for those seeking reproductive health care. In Missouri and Tennessee, abortion rights have been swiftly banned or severely restricted, with large swaths of the Midwest and South following.
“When they announced the Dobbs case, we knew that meant that we were likely going to lose access to abortion in Tennessee within the next 12 months,” said Jennifer Pepper, the chief executive at CHOICES, a comprehensive reproductive health clinic based in Memphis.
So, Pepper and her team started planning how they could expand their services. Finding a location that could serve as a critical access point for abortion care was top of mind.
In trying to pinpoint where to locate, a few things came to mind — her knowledge of southern Illinois from growing up in the Metro East, having friends who went to Southern Illinois University, and hopping on the train in Memphis to visit them in Carbondale during her college days.
Carbondale will soon be renovating its Amtrak station, which is the first stop in Illinois coming north — connecting New Orleans and Chicago.
"I stared at a map and it just kind of all came to me and (I) said to my team — 'I think it's this town, in Carbondale," she said. “Carbondale had this opportunity to be a critical access point for the entire southeastern United States.”
Pepper isn’t the only one expanding reproductive health care in the college town roughly 50 miles from Illinois’ southern border. Dr. Alan Braid, who notoriously defied the Texas abortion ban last fall, announced he will also be relocating his practice here.
Not everyone is thrilled with Carbondale’s potential to become a welcoming place for people seeking abortion services, and the idea is bringing up memories from decades ago.
In 1985, the privately owned Carbondale Memorial Hospital voted to end elective abortions. George Maroney, the hospital’s administrator at the time, said the community in and around Carbondale was split on the issue — a third supported abortion rights, another third wanted to ban the practice entirely and the final third didn’t care.
Recalling the board’s decision from his Carbondale home, the now-retired Maroney said he believes the influence of the greater region and subsequent protests surrounding abortion rights was what ultimately pushed the board’s decision.
"It was just the pressure of people in the community," he said. "I didn't see the board members having strong convictions one way or the other, but push come to shove, ‘OK, we'll go and stop abortions.’”
As before, community members who oppose abortion, many from surrounding towns, expressed their ire about providers choosing to open clinics in Carbondale, this time using social media in addition to public comments at Carbondale City Council meetings.
“I do not want to see the abortion industry bring another abortion clinic to Carbondale,” said Donna Glaub, who has lived in the city for nearly 50 years. “If that’s what they think Carbondale is going to become and the new train station is going to become the hub — it doesn’t hit your heart right.”
One local pastor even called for the death penalty for doctors who perform the procedure.
“Instead of the death penalty being handed down to the innocent party, the baby, the death penalty should come upon the evil man that committed that violence,” said Justin Sparks, a pastor at Christ Church in Carbondale who has also pushed anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and opposition to the coronavirus vaccine on social media.
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry, who has been labeled a moderate Republican, buckled to the wave of anti-abortion comments during a May 25 council meeting.
“You folks can demonstrate and maybe they won't come here if they understand that the community is truly, truly against them,” he said.
When pro-abortion access residents confronted the mayor about his comments in a subsequent meeting, some having interpreted them as advocating for violence, he apologized and said his intention was never to do so.
“I was simply saying protesters can protest peacefully against anything they want. It’s Carbondale for goodness sakes, ” Henry responded, alluding to the town’s history of protests and activism. “I believe, like I’ve said, in women’s rights to health care and the right to abortion.”
Henry, City Manager Gary Williams and Police Chief Stan Reno declined to be interviewed for this story.
In a written statement, city spokeswoman Roni LeForge said the impact several new clinics will have on Carbondale is unclear, but the city's focus will be on protecting businesses operating legally in town. The local police department will not increase its staff size in response to the reproductive health clinics opening.
The geopolitical split
Democrats and liberal-leaning viewpoints have been losing their foothold outside of Illinois’ city centers, mirroring the national shift in geopolitical alignment the past several decades.
“Illinois is an analog for the profound party alignments and realignments that have changed American politics into a pitched battle of the party bases in the 21st century,” writes John Jackson, a visiting professor at SIU’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, in a paper detailing the region's geopolitical shift.
Jackson said the Republican Party has capitalized on rural voters and conservative values, with Democrats trading geography for voters over the past several decades.
“Now the South is the bedrock of the Republican Party, and really, in basic respects, it’s still about God, guns and the gays and a few other things that we now call the culture wars — including the abortion issue,” he said.
Paige Dycus, a 19-year-old from neighboring Herrin, Illinois, shared similar sentiments.
“We're like the South of the north,” she said while stretched out on a blanket at one of Carbondale's Sunset Concerts on a recent summer evening. “We still have some more conservative-type leaning policies, like attitudes towards most things, but we are in Illinois.”
Dycus said she was angry to hear about the Supreme Court overturning Roe and has even protested the decision. There was excitement within her circles, she said, when providers began announcing they would be opening up clinics locally.
“It was just kind of a relief to know that we were going to step up to the plate and provide access, not only access to only our area, but to other people who need it,” Dycus said.
As the spotlight shines on the debate surrounding abortion rights, pressure from the largely Republican communities surrounding Carbondale can’t stop outside providers from coming into the state.
City Councilman Adam Loos said that those speaking out against abortion access are a minority of his constituents and that he emphasizes the city’s hands are legally tied.
“What I’ve told them, speaking for myself rather than for the city, is that even if there were something (to do) — I wouldn’t participate in it,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a majority for it.”
Pepper said the precarious geopolitical situation is an environment CHOICES has always existed in. Shelby County, Tenn., which includes Memphis, is decidedly Democratic like Jackson County, Ill., but its surrounding counties are ruby red. Still, she remains optimistic for the future.
“Illinois feels a little like the land of milk and honey for us,” she said, noting the state's legislative support of abortion rights. “Being surrounded by hostility is not new to us. It’s something we manage and deal with because our patients need access to abortion, and we’re committed to providing that.”
Brian Munoz is a staff photojournalist and multimedia reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his work on Instagram and Twitter at @brianmmunoz.
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