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Richard Phelan, former Cook County Board president who protected access to abortion, dies at 86

Richard “Dick” Phelan, a former president of the Cook County Board remembered for championing reproductive rights and abortion services while in office, died peacefully in his sleep on Tuesday in north suburban Lake Forest, his family said in a release.

The cause of death was metastatic cancer, his family said. He was 86.

Using his executive power as Cook County board president from 1990 to 1994, Phelan reinstated access to abortion at the county hospital amid protests and litigation, reversing his predecessor’s steps to ban the medical practice. Phelan, a devout Catholic, plowed forward with his reproductive health campaign, despite loud criticism from the Catholic Church.

“Every woman in this country has a legal right to an abortion,” Phelan had said at the time. “By denying poor women access, we deprive them of their constitutional rights just as surely as if we refused to allow them to vote. We must level the playing field and right the wrong.”

Phelan launched an unsuccessful bid for the governor’s office in 1994.

Phelan entered the Chicago and Illinois political scene as a relatively unknown millionaire attorney based in Winnetka.

However, before assuming the Cook County post, Phelan was thrust into the national spotlight when he led a special counsel investigating ethics violations against U.S. Speaker of the House Jim Wright. Despite denying the allegations, Wright resigned soon after the case.

In his first race for elected office, Phelan won the Democratic primary election for board president in 1990 with a message of shaking up the county government. He won despite not having a large political organization behind him.

He married Barbara Phelan, his wife of 34 years after the pair met on a blind date a week before he assumed office. She said he died peacefully and without pain.

“He lived a full life and he was always optimistic,” she said Saturday. “He saw the best in everyone all the time.”

In a family statement, Barbara said that “politics could use someone of Dick’s convictions today.”

Chicago attorney Bill Quinlan, Phelan’s nephew, praised his uncle’s work, from leading the opening of a new hospital to protecting a “woman’s right to choose.”

“My uncle Dick Phelan was a true champion of health care for vulnerable populations,” Quinlan said through a spokesperson. “He championed, advocated for, and delivered on building a new Cook County Hospital — the first new public hospital built in the U.S. in more than a decade. He led the county’s acquisition of the historic Provident Hospital and its reopening on the South Side and he was a fierce believer in women’s rights, including a woman’s right to choose ensuring that all women have the right to choose no matter of their economic status.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle extended her condolences to Phelan’s family in a statement Saturday morning, remembering his work ensuring access to women’s reproductive rights.

“We are saddened today by the passing of Richard J. Phelan, a distinguished leader and former President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners,” Preckwinkle said on X, formerly Twitter. “He was a champion for women’s reproductive rights and ensured that care was provided for those in need.”

County health officials also celebrated Phelan’s commitment to reproductive health services.

“At a time when many local governments were shuttering public health systems, he led the charge to purchase the historic Provident Hospital and fund a replacement Cook County Hospital facility. He was also a stalwart champion of reproductive rights for women,” Interim CEO of Cook County Health Dr. Erik Mikartis said in a statement Saturday.

Phelan grew up in the Ravenswood neighborhood on the North Side.

In his retirement, Phelan split his time between residences in Lake Forest and Naples, Florida, with Barbara, after the couple sold their Streeterville condo in 2010.

Phelan is survived by three children from his marriage with his first wife, Carol, who died of a heart attack in 1989.

Funeral services will be held at Old St. Patrick’s Church at a future date, his family said. Services will be open to the public.

Tribune reporter A.D. Quig contributed.

aguffey@chicagotribune.com