Supreme Court hears arguments on Cook County Hospital abortions



SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP)—Government power, not abortion, was the focus Thursday at the state Supreme Court as attorneys argued a dispute over abortions at Cook County Hospital.

County Board President Richard Phelan last year ordered the hospital to begin performing elective abortions for poor women, ending a 12-year ban on the procedure.

But four County Board members are challenging his power to issue that order, saying board policy prohibits elective abortions there.

‘‘This case is not about the merits of abortion, or whether or not abortions should be performed at Cook County Hospital,’‘ attorney Joseph Morris argued for the four board members. ‘‘This is about who should make that decision.’‘

Phelan’s attorney, former federal Judge Susan Getzendanner, agreed authority was the central question. She argued that Phelan has broad executive powers to control county services.

Abortions, except in unusual circumstances, were halted at the hospital in 1980 by former board President George W. Dunne. The number of abortions then dropped to about 10 a year from about 3,500 annually.

Since Phelan—who is now a Democratic candidate for governor—lifted the ban, more than 1,000 abortions have been performed at a cost of about $1 million.

The County Board never voted on Dunne’s order banning abortions. But a committee did endorse the order and the board accepted the committee report.

Morris argued that amounted to a board policy banning elective abortions, a policy that Phelan can’t overturn.

But even if no policy existed, he said, Phelan doesn’t have authority to set one. The board’s job is to set basic policies and Phelan’s job is to carry them out, Morris said.

Otherwise, ‘‘That puts the president of the Cook County Board in the position of being able to take any action,’‘ Morris said.

Justice Michael Bilandic bombarded Morris with questions about executive and legislative authority, rarely letting him reply before launching another round.

Morris said ‘‘the little bit of contentiousness’‘ with Bilandic didn’t interfere with his arguments.

‘‘It’s very helpful to have the court ask questions,’‘ he said. ‘‘That’s why I’m here, to answer questions.’‘

Getzendanner would not comment afterward, except to say, ‘‘I think I made a great argument.’‘

She argued two main points: The board never set a policy against elective abortions and, in the absence of such a policy, Phelan’s executive powers let him make decisions about Cook County services.

‘‘Executives act all the time,’‘ Getzendanner told the court. ‘‘There’s no evidence the president and the (county health) chief are doing anything out of the ordinary.’‘

The court can take as long as it wants in handing down decisions.