CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner ended months of speculation Thursday and signed legislation allowing state health insurance and Medicaid coverage for abortions, a reversal of the first-term Republican's stance on the proposal last spring.
The Legislature, which is run by Democrats, approved the measure in May but delayed sending it to Rauner until Monday, in part because he has wavered on where he stands. As a candidate, Rauner supported expanding coverage for abortions, but in April said he opposed the legislation and Illinois should focus on economic issues.
Rauner's final word came at a news conference Thursday before signing the bill privately. He said while he'd talked to advocates on both sides, he always supported abortion rights and had to take action "consistent" with his views.
"The passions, the emotions, the sentiments on both sides of these issues are very powerful. I respect them very much," Rauner said. "I believe that a woman living with limited financial means should not be put in a position where she has to choose something different than a woman of higher income would be able to choose."
The law takes effect immediately.
Democrats argued all women should have the same access to abortion services. Republicans said taxpayers shouldn't be forced to fund a morally objectionable procedure, particularly when Illinois has major financial problems.
The annual taxpayer cost of abortions under the measure would be $1.8 million, according to Department of Healthcare and Family Services estimates.
The measure also removes language in Illinois law that states a desire to criminalize abortion if a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing the procedure is overturned. Democrats initially sold the bill as a means of keeping abortion legal if Roe v. Wade were dumped. President Donald Trump has promised to nominate Supreme Court justices bent on revisiting Roe.
The decision was politically difficult for Rauner, who's seeking re-election in 2018 and is considered among the most vulnerable governors nationwide.
The former venture capitalist won his first office in 2014, in part by getting support from independent suburban voters, especially women, with his pledge to have "no social agenda." Singing the bill earned him praise from top Illinois Democrats, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a onetime White House chief of staff under former President Barack Obama.
But criticism from conservatives and religious leaders who urged him to reject it poured in immediately.
Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who ran with Rauner in 2014, said she disagreed with the governor as an anti-abortion Republican who was born to a teenage mother.
State Rep. Peter Breen, House Republican floor leader, called it a "breach of commitment" and said finding a primary challenger for Rauner "seemed inevitable."
"It's a betrayal," Breen said. "In politics you are only as good as your word."
Rauner said he tried to find a compromise but there wasn't support. He dismissed the impact on his political career.
The wealthy businessman with a massive campaign account is the main backer of the Illinois Republican Party. Several high-profile Democrats are vying for the chance to unseat Rauner, including billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker.
"Politics are politics," Rauner said.
Meanwhile, advocates for women's reproductive rights called Rauner's move an important step.
"Women across Illinois are empowered to make their own health care and life choices without interference from politicians," said Lorie Chaiten, director the reproductive rights project for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. "We are pleased the governor has stood with these women and made the right decision for our state."
More than two dozen states provide Medicaid coverage for abortions in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group supporting abortion rights. This is in keeping with the 1977 federal Hyde Amendment, which otherwise restricts federal funding for abortions.
But a state can use state-only funds from the state-federal program for women seeking abortions for other reasons. Seventeen states do that, 13 because of a court order.