Roe vs Wade: Rockford's former clinic put city at epicenter of abortion debate

ROCKFORD — For nearly 40 years, Rockford was home to the only abortion clinic for miles, a characteristic that often placed the northern Illinois city in the crosshairs of the nation's abortion debate.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled Americans no longer have a constitutional right to an abortion, overturning Roe V. Wade, the 1973 case that gave women access to abortions across the United States.

Although Illinois is considered a safe haven for women seeking an abortion, the Rockford region hasn't contributed to that role for several years now.

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The nearest clinic providing abortions is now 54 miles away in Aurora, said Barbara Giolitto, president of Winnebago County Citizens for Choice and a former state legislator.

"When abortion is not safe and legal, women will take the situation into their own hands depending on the degree of desperation," Giolitto said. "If they can't afford to feed a child, if they are in a very violent relationship they can’t get out of, the last thing they want to do is be pregnant. They have to protect themselves so they will find a way."

The supreme court decision would put states in charge of creating their own laws around abortion. Each state would have its own regulations and restrictions. In 13 states, so-called "trigger laws" would go into effect banning most abortions and only sometimes making exceptions for rape and incest.

Help vs. harassment

In the few years before it closed in 2012, the Northern Illinois Women's Center at the former Turner School, 1410 Broadway, was open twice a week on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Each day it was open, whether in the freezing cold of winter or the heat of summer, protesters would gather to pray, carry signs and yell out to women seeking an abortion often resulting in a contentious street battle over the issue outside the region's sole abortion clinic.

"Street counselors," as they called themselves, would urge women to carry their pregnancy to term. Counter protesters who said they were trying to prevent "harassment" of women seeking abortion services tried to run interference.

There was a man who would climb a ladder armed with a bullhorn, blaring his message throughout the neighborhood that babies were being killed at the clinic and that the owner was a "greedy murderer." There were protesters who would walk slowly across the parking lot driveway to stop patients from entering the clinic, giving other protesters time to approach their cars and deliver their message.

The former owner of the building — abortion rights advocate and provocateur Wayne Webster once fired a shotgun to stop an axe-wielding priest from invading the clinic.

Webster would post profanity-laced messages along side religious symbols in the windows of the building. He once put a crucified rubber chicken on display and would play loud music in an effort to drown out the protesters.

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'Quite frightening'

Rockford Family Initiative president Kevin Rilott was there almost every week for 20 years, praying, carrying signs and trying to convince the women seeking abortion services to choose another path. Rilott believes the unborn are "younger, smaller, completely helpless" people.

"Our goal was to offer alternatives to the mothers who went into the abortion clinic, to offer them help," Rilott said.

Rilott says he never saw his group of dedicated pro-life protesters as protesters, but as people who gathered to pray and seek "God's grace." Rilott said abortion should be prohibited in any situation other then instances when a mother would otherwise die.

"We believed in the power of prayer and that Jesus loved not only the babies in the womb, but also the mothers, fathers, clinic staff and the abortionist," Rilott said. "We were praying for everyone involved. We wanted mothers to choose life. Some did and we have had long-term relationships with some of those mothers and helped them the best we could."

But what Rilott describes as prayerful offers of help, Giloitto said was more like loud harassment of women seeking a medical procedure.

"There was a lot of yelling going on," Giolitto said. "We just tried to keep things calmed down so the women could have a half-way decent experience. The opposition always made it quite frightening for them. And nobody should have to go through that when they are just trying to get a procedure from a doctor."

Abortion clinic to police station

Former Mayor Larry Morrissey said managing the protests and counter protests was a preoccupation for police and his administration during his three terms in office.

Although staunchly pro-life, Morrissey worked to make sure the rights of those seeking abortion weren't violated.

But he also worked to maintain the First Amendment rights of the protesters. And he granted a controversial temporary parking permit that allowed the pro-life protesters to operate a van outside the clinic offering women a free ultrasound before seeking an abortion.

Ultimately, Morrissey was happy to see clinic operators decide to close down after nearly 40 years of operations rather than address "unsafe and unsanitary" conditions that were identified by state inspectors.

Before his third term in office ended, Morrissey said the turn-of-the-century building had been blessed by Catholic Diocese of Rockford Bishop David Malloy and transformed into a Rockford Police Department District 2 station.

"That’s the arc — it went from the early stages in my time in office when it was the site of constant debate and controversy and challenge to ultimately later in my term it became the District 2 police headquarters," Morrissey said. "Now, it’s a beautiful building."

The Aftermath

What the legacy is of those debates outside abortion clinic is also a matter of debate.

Rilott said he never thought the clinic would close.

But he said its closure was reason to celebrate. He believes it has prevented some women from getting an abortion who are unwilling or unable to travel for it.

"I believe there are human beings alive today, in school today, because that clinic closed," Rilott said. "Every single day, in my prayers, since that clinic closed, I have thanked God for it."

Giolitto views the supreme court's abortion ruling as the first in what could be a series of rulings curtailing women's rights. And Giolitto said the closure of Rockford's abortion clinic has only served to prevent women — especially low-income women — from obtaining the services they need.

Giolitto's organization has a fund that in the last six months has assisted 177 women from across a four-county region obtain an abortion out of the area. She said many don't know help is available. And she said eliminating abortion rights means more women may be coming to Illinois to seek abortion access.

"This is a sad day," Giolitto said.

Jeff Kolkey: (815) 987-1374;; @jeffkolkey

Editor's note: A previous version of this story erroneously referred to Wayne Webster, the former owner of the Turner School building, as the "late Wanye Webster." He is in fact alive and still lives in Rockford.

This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Roe v Wade: Rockford's former abortion clinic site of weekly protests