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Clergy Voices Again Raised for Justice

On May 22, 1967, at a time when abortion was illegal in the United States, an article on the front page of the New York Times announced that twenty-one New York City clergy would counsel and refer women to licensed doctors for safe abortions. The group called itself the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).

Not many people know the story of the CCS. Some of the loudest speakers in the debate about abortion access since Roe v Wade have been conservative religious voices, leading the general public to believe that people of faith, especially the clergy, were opposed to abortion. There has been a relentless attack on women’s access to abortion since the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision in 1973. According to research published in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute, states have adopted 334 abortion restrictions just since 2010, constituting 30% of all abortion restrictions enacted by states since Roe v Wade. On March 6, 2017, the White House proposed preserving federal payments to Planned Parenthood only if it discontinues providing abortions. Congressional Republicans have said that they will move quickly to strip all federal funds from Planned Parenthood.

As the 50th anniversary of the CCS approaches in May, we think about the network of some 3,000 clergy who referred as many as 450,000 women for safe abortions between 1967 and 1973, and if that kind of service will be needed again. The clergy we interviewed for our book came of age during the 1950s and 1960s and were at the forefront of the civil rights, anti-war, and women’s rights movements.

When we first starting researching the CCS in 2002, we wondered where the voices of progressive clergy were in the social justice movements of the 21st century. Now we are starting to hear those voices being raised once more. In recent weeks, clergy and religious organizations have spoken out on transgender civil rights. More than 1,800 religious leaders signed on to an amicus brief on behalf of Gavin Grimm, a trans student who has fought for the right to use a high school restroom that aligns with his gender identity. And a broad network of 37 Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a campaign to mobilize congregants to lobby Congress and the president on behalf of immigrant, refugee, and undocumented people.

We are experiencing divisive and turbulent times. But we are heartened to see clergy and religious organizations standing with those individuals or groups who are targets of attack by right wing individuals and organizations. The CCS provides a historical example of how clergy acted to help women get safe abortions when they were illegal. The CCS also can provide an example for how to resist and organize against oppressive governments and legislation today.

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