he genesis of a career that Jennifer Welch (LAW ’94) has spent the last three decades cultivating can be traced to the fax machine in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Chicago.
Fresh out of college and working full-time at the organization, Welch vividly recalls that day in 1991 when she went to retrieve a fax—the ruling in Rust v. Sullivan, the case in which the United States Supreme Court ruled that the government was able to withhold Title X funds from family planning facilities that counseled patients on abortion. A realization suddenly hit her.
“I’m reading this case that directly impacts Planned Parenthood and all of our patients, page by page as it comes off the curly paper of the fax machine,” she says. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to go to law school. I’ve got to figure this stuff out.’ I very much went to law school to learn the language, so I could talk the talk and walk the walk."
That experience set Welch on the path to the roles she holds today: president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood of Illinois.
Having Margaret “Peggy” Byrne (LAW ’82) as an adjunct professor while Welch was an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Chicago played a vital role. It was while taking a course with Byrne that Welch recognized that a lawyer didn't only have to work in the law enforcement realm.
“Jennifer had this compassion and empathy that was quite remarkable.”
—Margaret “Peggy” Byrne
“She was teaching us that the law is a tool,” Welch says, during an early January morning interview at PPIL headquarters in Chicago. “It can be used for good; it can be used for not so good.”
Welch's bona fides as a feminist and an advocate are obvious in her victories over the course of her nearly 30-year career. Yet, as some of her closest friends can attest, the commanding manner in which Welch approaches her work, showcased in compassion and drive, consistently shines through.
“Her persona is a big part of what makes her so successful,” Illinois State Representative Ann Williams says. “Jennifer has a unique way of being a strong leader for a huge, overwhelming issue at a time when it’s under attack but also presenting a common sense, pragmatic approach to dealing with a very challenging and complex issue,”
Welch’s time interning and then working at Planned Parenthood as a young woman drove home the idea that she was, by her own admission, a systems-level thinker who was not cut out for service work. The discovery also allowed her “to connect with people about what they wanted and needed about their health care.” Working with Byrne, an attorney who co-founded the Illinois Clemency Project for Battered Women, while Welch was a student at Chicago-Kent College of Law only served to drive that home. The organization, which Byrne still directs, helps women convicted of crimes against partners who abused them to obtain clemency.
“Jennifer had this compassion and empathy that was quite remarkable,” Byrne says, noting that Welch would meet the women in prison and assist on their clemency petitions.
Those skills were honed over nearly a decade where Welch helped to grow the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network locally. Her advocacy earned her a position as a policy adviser on women's issues for then newly elected Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan in 2003. During her seven years in the AG’s office, Welch worked her way up to policy director before joining the City of Chicago in 2010. Similarly, Welch worked her way up in the city’s Department of Family and Support Services to become the first deputy commissioner.
"Whenever we touched on issues related to women, the domestic violence arena, Jen was really our go-to in the office for all those issues,” says Williams, Madigan's first legislative director. “Our office really relied on Jen in terms of interaction with other organizations in Springfield and around the capital dealing with these issues."
Welch joined PPIL in 2017, in time to guide the organization under attack. It came to a head two years later when the Trump administration began enforcing the Title X gag rule cutting federal funding to any health care facility that performs or refers patients for abortions. She continues to do what she can to ensure that PPIL’s scope of services does not dwindle. And she advocates.
“I always feel that the reality of Planned Parenthood, when people know that we serve men, that we do HIV prevention and 90,000 [sexually transmitted infections] tests, that 14,000 young people have been educated, the more they know about us and the less they can object to everything that we’re doing in their communities,” Welch says.
Battles remain. Ever proactive, she, along with her organization, played a role in ensuring that Illinois remains a state where safe reproductive health will always be available, advocating for the passage of the Reproductive Health Act in June 2019. For Welch, it is another opportunity to use law as a tool for the good.
“It really does go to show what one lawyer can do,” Byrne says. “The impact that one lawyer can have on the status of women in Chicago and the state of Illinois is profound.”
Photos: Olivia Dimmer