Lawmaker’s personal story strikes powerful chord as Illinois House approves abortion bills

SPRINGFIELD — As debate hummed along in the Illinois House on a series of bills seeking to further protect access to abortion, state Rep. Gregg Johnson, D-Rock Island, had an unmistakably tense look on his face and was restless to the point where he felt as if he was going to pass out. 

“I wanted it to be over,” Johnson acknowledged in an interview with Lee Enterprises in his Capitol office Thursday morning. “When you have those moments, you just kind of want to retreat into a shell. But, sometimes you don’t have that option. Sometimes you have to speak.”

As difficult as it was, Johnson had a story to tell. Namely, the story of Shirley Hunter.

Hunter was a single mother of three from Rock Island who was pregnant with her fourth child in 1972. She suffered from severe preeclampsia during her first three pregnancies and was told she would likely not survive a fourth. She sought an abortion.

Shirley Hunter pictured with her two older children, Kathy Yungen and Gregg Johnson. Hunter died on July 13, 1972 from pregnancy complications caused by severe preeclampsia after she was denied an abortion. 

It was the year before the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade was decided, so Hunter saved money to travel to New York, one of the few states in the country where abortion was legal at the time.

But by that point, Hunter was too far along in her pregnancy and nothing could be done. She returned to Rock Island and died on July 13, 1972 at the age of 33, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter, 8-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter.

Shirley Hunter died on July 13, 1972 from pregnancy complications caused by severe preeclampsia after she was denied an abortion. 

courtesy of Tracy Jones

The ripple effect on the family was immense.

Johnson would know — he was Hunter’s 8-year-old boy.

“Shirley Hunter was my mother and these girls are my sisters,” Johnson said, speaking from his desk in the Illinois House chamber Wednesday evening. “And our lives were thrown into chaos because our mother had no option other than to die and leave us.”

Johnson, who took office in January, first shared his family’s story more than a year-and-a-half ago after burying it for nearly a half-century. He subsequently retold it while campaigning last year.

But, his latest telling struck a powerful chord as it came amid a series of votes in the Illinois House to further protect access to abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year.

State Rep. Gregg Johnson, D-Rock Island, is given a standing ovation from his colleagues on the Illinois House floor after giving a speech about his late mother Shirley Hunter, who died in 1972 from pregnancy complications after being unable to obtain an abortion. 

JERRY NOWICKI, Capitol News Illinois

The latest package included legislation requiring all public colleges to offer emergency contraceptives at a reduced price via at least one vending machine-type kiosk on campus and a bill requiring that insurance providers cover medication abortion, hormonal therapy and HIV medication. Those are heading to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

Another measure that passed would ensure that automatic license plate readers aren’t used to target people from out of state seeking access to reproductive healthcare or to track their immigration status. It heads to the Senate for consideration.

The final and most controversial measure that passed would bar crisis pregnancy centers from using deceptive practices that are intended to prevent a person from obtaining an abortion. It now just needs Pritzker’s signature to become law.

Johnson was the last speaker on this last bill. In five minutes, he told his mother’s story, albeit “in a third-person sense … because it’s the only way I can emotionally detach myself to tell the story in a composed manner.”

Every time he tells it, Johnson said, the pain feels fresh.

“I feel like I’m that little boy again,” Johnson said. “It re-traumatizes me to a certain extent. I think I slept two hours, maybe, last night. It was very upsetting.”

But with the country now in a post-Roe era and Johnson representing a district that borders Iowa, a state that has taken steps to restrict a woman’s right to choose, he said he feels compelled to keep sharing it to anyone who will listen.

“It does take a chunk. It does,” Johnson said. “But it’s important that the story be told because I think that, too many times, we really only get a woman’s perspective on this and how it impacts women in their lives. But it’s important that men understand that this issue also impacts them.”

Johnson, a union organizer from a blue-collar district, is an unlikely messenger for the abortion rights movement at first blush. But, that fact makes his advocacy even more impactful, abortion rights proponents say. 

“When you see someone that looks like you talking about something that you thought was none of your business, it makes a difference,” said state Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, head of the House Democrats’ working group on reproductive rights. 

“When someone who looks like a standard issue man’s man is talking about that impact on his life, it can’t be underestimated, the power of that,” Cassidy added. 

Illinois has become an island of sorts for abortion rights in the Midwest, enacting among the most liberal reproductive health laws in the country in recent years leading up to the Dobbs v. Jackson decision in 2022, which reversed Roe v. Wade.

In the nearly year since, Illinois has enacted further protections that shield out-of-state patients and Illinois providers from legal action originating from other states regarding abortions performed here.

However, many surrounding states, including Iowa, Kentucky and Missouri have taken actions that essentially ban or extremely restrict the procedure.

“In Iowa, in South Carolina, in Missouri, in so many other states now, there’s eight year old boys who are going to go through what I went through going forward. And that breaks my heart,” Johnson said.

Johnson credited his colleagues for the package of bills they put together, saying that he wanted “to make sure that those women in those states understand that we’re here for them.”

State Rep. Gregg Johnson, D-Rock Island, speaks on the House floor during a debate on legislation barring crisis pregnancy centers from using deceptive practices that are intended to prevent a person from obtaining an abortion on Wednesday. 


“I think Illinois, we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to help them,” Johnson said. 

When he tells the story of his mother, Johnson said he still feels vulnerable. 

“Don’t mistake vulnerable for weakness,” he said. “I’m still going to fight for that which I believe.”

Contact Brenden Moore at Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13

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Region: Decatur,City: Decatur,Politics,Region: Central

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May 12, 2023 at 07:23PM

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