For some clergy in the past, facilitating abortions was faith in action
Beginning in 1967, more than 2,500 clergy—Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Church of Christ, Catholic, and Jewish—of the Clergy Abortion Counseling Service (CCS) provided counseling and abortion information for women facing an unwanted pregnancy. This voluntary non-profit organization represented faith in action. Religious leaders sought to prevent the suffering and shame women victims of unwanted pregnancies faced, as well as the potentially deadly effects of illegal abortions. Their work is a reminder that religious views on abortion are, and always have been, varied. Religious beliefs can uphold a woman’s dignity and humanity over that of a fetus.
CCS began in 1967 when Texas-born Baptist minister Howard R. Moody of Judson Memorial Church in New York City convened a meeting among clergy to consider the idea of developing a counseling and guidance service for women wishing to have an abortion. Moody had experienced a pregnant woman’s crisis firsthand and organized an opportunity for the group to meet several women who had sought illegal abortions.
This meeting crystallized the urgent need for emotional support and practical assistance for women. At the time, the New York legislature was debating liberalizing its restrictive 19th-century abortion law, but it would take another three years before it actually did. The CCS therefore obtained information about competent, albeit initially illegal, abortion providers and announced their willingness to respond to calls from women asking for help.
These efforts led to the CCS, a loose organization that eventually expanded to 31 states. Many clergy themselves have encountered unintended pregnant women in their ministries, which has opened their eyes to the dire need for information and counseling services. As a press release in South Carolina made clear, CCS clergy viewed abortion counseling as “our moral obligation, our pastoral responsibility, and therefore our religious duty to aid and assist all women with problem pregnancies.
It is impossible to determine exact figures as few records remain, but up to 500,000 women have used the service. Some 95% of them opted for an abortion and received information on where to obtain it safely. Women in difficulty, according to the CCS, needed compassion, encouragement and reliable information, not abstract theories about the beginning of life.
At the time, abortion was taboo and was only mentioned in whispers. Although abortion is largely illegal, estimates suggest that more than one million pregnant Americans seek out illegal procedures each year. To find one, they navigated what Moody called a “dark and ugly labyrinthine underground,” alone and scared. Illegal abortions, even with antibiotics, were dangerous surgical procedures, and patients risked hemorrhage, infection, and punctured organs in their desperate effort to end an unwanted pregnancy. Hundreds of women die every year, while many more are hospitalized and suffer permanent physical injuries. The CCS has sought to alleviate this anguish and suffering.
Make no mistake, the abortion debate was fierce in the late 1960s, especially in the home state of Moody, New York, where the powerful Catholic cardinal presided. States across the country considered relaxing their restrictive laws while the Catholic Church insisted that abortion was murder.
But Moody argued, in religious magazine articles and a 1973 book on the CCS, that such a position trumped all other moral considerations. Rather, he focused on “the moral question of whether it is justifiable to impose the undesirable on the unwilling”. According to him, using a woman’s body against her free will and choice as a vessel for an unwanted pregnancy is as morally repugnant as abortion because it deprives a woman of the right to answer “the existential questions of what she must do his life in the world. »
Moody’s views resonated with clergy of many denominations and denominations nationwide. CCS phone numbers appeared frequently in newspapers and magazines, as well as in college newspapers from states from Texas and Alabama to Pennsylvania and California. The Florida State University chaplain was a member; Chapel Hill had a thriving chapter in North Carolina.
Their services were in high demand. In some areas, the clergy on duty received more than 100 calls a day. After New York liberalized its abortion law in 1970, students from Georgia, Florida and elsewhere filled planes for New York with the help of the CCS. South Carolina CCS began in September 1970 with 17 clergy. In 1972, 68 clergy from 11 denominations were counseling an average of two women a week, sending many of them to abortion providers in New York. They also offered follow-up advice and access to small loans, and even found furniture for a wife.
Without official offices, the CCS operated by telephone. The women called a voicemail service, which provided a message with direct phone numbers to clergy willing to provide care. After New York legalized abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy, other referral services sprung up. These agencies offered to connect women across the country with legal abortion providers in New York City, where there were no residency requirements to obtain the procedure. They often charged a fee for the service, but the CCS offered its advice for free as a matter of principle.
The CCS circumvented laws prohibiting abortion by providing information orally, labeling it as pastoral care, and generally sending women to places where abortion was legal. Clergy advisers only asked for the woman’s first name, and even that was not recorded. And so, few records of the service actually exist.
However, questionnaires from a chapter in South Carolina provide insight into women who have sought help. They were between 14 and 48 years old; were African American and white; single, married and divorced. They were housewives, mothers, factory workers, high school and university students. One became pregnant after her first sexual experience; another already had five children and had missed a single dose of her oral contraceptive.
They were all desperate. One of them had tried to induce an abortion by taking 42 birth control pills and nine quinine pills. Another’s last pregnancy had ended in stillbirth. Her husband’s written consent could have earned her a legal abortion for health reasons. Unfortunately, he had abandoned her. Regardless of the details, these women determined that childbirth would be disastrous for them and their families.
The clergy involved in the CCS saw abortion as a complicated moral dilemma, but they believed they were doing God’s work in helping women in difficulty. After Roe vs. Wade, the need for CCS has decreased. Yet the CCS persisted because the clergy understood that deer would not provide access to abortion for poor women. The CSS continued to defend destitute women.
Eventually, however, the CCS disappeared completely, leaving behind little evidence of its existence. As a result, religious voices against legal abortion are much easier to find in the historical record than the voices of Moody and other CCS clergy. According to Moody, a one-dimensional moral focus on the fetus erased the humanity of women. He insisted that a law requiring women to be “baby makers” robbed women of their own religious awareness when deciding to bear a child. In his view, the abortion ban was not only unconstitutional, but also downright anti-Christian.