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Pro-choice priests and suicide girls

A glimpse back at abortion in pre-Roe Chicago.

Abortion-rights activists rallied at Federal Plaza in the Loop Wednesday night, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case over a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.
Abortion-rights activists rallied at Federal Plaza in the Loop Wednesday night, hours after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case over a restrictive Mississippi abortion law.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Since the Supreme Court seems poised to drag America back to the past, at least when it comes to abortion, we should reacquaint ourselves with where we’re headed. Get the lay of the land, as it were.

And no, I’m not going to scare you with horror stories of botched back-alley abortions. Nor the “Million Dollar Abortion Ring” that sent ripples of tragedy through the corrupted Chicago medical and legal communities. Been there, done that.

Rather, I’m here to reassure. To remind you that just as Roe v. Wade did not introduce legal abortion, so its overturning, should that happen, will not slam the door completely.

The 1973 Roe decision was not the start of legal abortion in the United States. In 1971, there were 500,000 illegal abortions, true, but also 500,000 legal abortions in the 31 states where the procedure was allowed to preserve “life and health” of the mother. Four states — New York, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska — offered abortion just because a pregnant woman wanted it, as if she were in control of her own body.

“Health” is a rather general term, vague enough for many doctors to perform abortions. Even in Illinois, where our dusty 1872 law allowed abortion “only if necessary for the preservation of the woman’s life.”

Still leeway enough to give rise to “therapeutic abortion.”

What a circus that was. Spend a few minutes ruffling newspapers from 1972 and you encounter situations like that of the 15-year-old referred to by one headline writer as “Suicide Girl.” Committed to the Audy Home by her mother, who could not afford the psychiatric care she needed, the teen ran away, got pregnant, then vowed she would kill herself if forced to have the baby.

She was again a ward of Illinois, which refused to let her go to one of the several Chicago hospitals that volunteered to do an abortion. It all wound up in court and in the news.

“I have performed abortions in similar cases at Michael Reese,” said Dr. Alex Tulsky, a gynecologist there. “This is done every day, if not at Michael Reese, then at other major Chicago hospitals.”

He observed that whether a medical condition resulted in the girl’s death, or a psychiatric one, “she’s equally dead either way.”

Around 100 abortion rights activists rallied in Federal Plaza, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021.
Around 100 abortion rights activists rallied in Federal Plaza on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the U.S. Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in a case concerning a restrictive abortion law in Mississippi.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Meanwhile, assistant state’s attorney Robert Novelle argued the girl was suicidal before getting pregnant, so “where’s the causal connection between the two?” The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, ruling her psychiatric condition was not relevant to whether a 15-year-old was forced by the state to bear a child or not.

The stories contain much comment from lawyers and judges, but not a word from the teen, nor her mother, a reminder that while making abortion illegal doesn’t end the practice, completely, it sure puts control back into the hands of men, where certain religious sorts insist it belongs.

After Roe made abortion supposedly legal in the United States, men still found way to block it. Even in Illinois. Remember that Cook County Board President George Dunne personally banned abortions at Cook County Hospital in 1980. Though that did not mean abortions stopped completely at County. They were still done on an “ad hoc basis” at the discretion of Dunne. His call.

“Sometimes he said yes, and sometimes he said no,” a source told the Sun-Times in 1992, when Dunne admitted he never really had the authority to stop the procedures, and they resumed.

Sound good? That is the world we are sliding back into.

To end on a positive note, Illinois finally let Suicide Girl have an abortion. The $650 for her trip to New York was paid for by ... this is why I don’t write fiction ... the Chicago Area Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies, chaired by Rev. Harold Quigley, who called the girl “a pawn in the ideology of the Catholic Church.”

The wrongs of illegal abortion were so manifest that even priests sometimes opposed them. Quigley’s group had facilitated 8,000 abortions over the previous 30 months. There never was nor will be a shortage of demand for abortion, which will always be available to women with money in their purses.

“The effect of the law is to discriminate against the poor and the blacks,” Quigley wrote in a letter to Cardinal John Cody.

People complain about society changing, but some things really do stay the same.

A supporter holds up a sign during an abortion rights rally outside Federal Plaza in Chicago, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard a Mississippi case that directly challenges the constitutional right to an abortion established nearly 50 years ago.
A supporter holds up a sign during an abortion rights rally outside Federal Plaza in Chicago on Wednesday.
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press