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Illegal abortion leads to circle of tragedy

Chicago’s 1941 “Million Dollar Abortion Ring” is a reminder of what we’ve got in store if Roe v. Wade gets overturned.

The case of the “Million Dollar” abortion ring was big news throughout the spring and summer of 1941, a reminder of the circles of corruption created when abortion is illegal.

An abortion cost $50 in Chicago in 1941.

Kinda cheap — $800 in today’s dollars — considering it was an illegal procedure, performed in secret, condemned by the church at a time when organized religion had even more of a stranglehold on American society than it does now, which is really saying something.

Chicago women back then had abortions anyway, for the same reasons they do now, ranging from medical to financial to emotional necessity. It was a fairly routine procedure in 1941. Your doctor would jot down an address — 190 N. State St. — and you’d hurry to the Gabler Clinic on the 6th floor.

The Gabler clinic had been open since the early 1930s, mostly. It would be periodically raided, only to open again. Leading to the question of how this criminal procedure was performed an average of five times a day in the heart of the Loop for almost a decade.

Therein lies the tale.

One reason religious zealots have such success restricting abortion is that it is seen as affecting only women. So they marshal their zombie army of imaginary babies and send them off to do battle against actual living people — mostly young, poor women — and thus approach the New Jerusalem, in their own minds.

While it is true that women are the primary beneficiaries of abortions, and suffer most when abortion is restricted, they are not the only victims of criminalizing a highly popular medical procedure. With the U.S. Supreme Court taking a case arising from Mississippi’s draconian abortion laws, and Texas’ “Heartbeat Law” criminalizing abortion after six weeks, now seems an apt moment to remember a case that rocked Chicago 80 years ago. A taste of what’s in store for us should the faith-addled fanatics Donald Trump placed on the high court overturn Roe v. Wade.

They called it “The Million Dollar Abortion Ring,” for the nearly 20,000 abortions, at $50 a pop, performed at the Gabler Clinic. The clinic went from open secret to front page news after Detective Daniel Moriarity, a 15-year veteran of the state’s attorney police force, went to 4367 N. Lake Park, pushed past a maid, and fired five shots into what he thought was the sleeping form of Ada Martin, who ran the clinic.

It wasn’t Martin. It was her daughter, Jennie, 24.

Martin had been paying Moriarity $100 a month, part of the network of corruption required to provide an illegal public service. He could deflect local heat, but the federal authorities were interested in collecting tax on that million dollars. Hoping to further motivate him, Martin threatened to take Moriarity down with her, and the shooting had been his attempt to avoid that.

The death of the sleeping young woman was just one ripple in an ever-widening circle of human wreckage. Moriarity’s wife had a nervous breakdown when he was arrested. One doctor involved in the clinic, Dr. Henry J. Millstone, took poison after being indicted. As he died he wrote letters exposing the ring. Millstone also wrote one to his wife, Emily, urging her to “keep her chin up.” She drank ammonia instead, and died too. A pair of assistant state’s attorneys were also found to be on the Gabler payroll and fired. Moriarity was sentenced to life and died in Joliet in 1946.

The dream of eliminating abortion is a fantasy from the same folks who’d eliminate sex, too, if only they could, or at least appoint themselves guardians to dictate to you how, when, why and with whom you do it. That door being closed, mostly, fighting abortion is what they’ve got left, not realizing that abortion has been a reality since ancient times and isn’t going away. The only choice is whether abortion is legal, safe and available, or illegal, dangerous and hard-to-get.

I was wondering how the $50 in 1941 compares to the cost of abortion now. According to those in the know, the procedure can cost about $2,000 — depending on how far along the pregnancy is, and a variety of other considerations, insurance and the like. It isn’t surprising that legal and relatively safe costs more than illegal and haphazard. All told, women, at least in Illinois, are in a far better position now than they were 80 years ago. For the moment, at least. The challenge is to keep it that way, in the face of those who feel it is their right to seize that decision from them by weight of law, unconcerned with the personal tragedies they unleash.