CCS Participants

In Memory of Rev. Carl E. Bielby

We recently learned of the death of Carl E. Bielby, in April 2021. Rev. Bielby, the founder of the Michigan Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, was a larger-than-life character who had numerous careers, all of them ultimately in service of justice and compassion.

Bielby was born in a suburb of Detroit and grew up Methodist. He played clarinet and later said, “Music was my first calling.” During high school, he moved with his family into a diverse neighborhood of Detroit. As a teen he had a born-again experience; he felt called to ministry, and he organized a revival meeting on a truck bed and played cornet with a group called Voices of Christian Youth. He attended conservative schools–Bob Jones University in South Carolina, and Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky–but not without rebelling against their more fundamentalist teachings. He studied counseling psychology, and counseling was what he really wanted to do.

After graduation, he served as associate minister at First Methodist in Owosso, Michigan, and DJ’d a religious radio show. He became solo minister at Asbury Methodist Church on Grand Avenue in Detroit, where his mission was to liberalize and integrate the church. His mentor was the Black minister of a nearby Methodist church. His marriage to his high school sweetheart broke up, and although the bishop disapproved of a divorced clergyman, he was called as co-pastor to a church in Warren, Michigan. He continued to study Methodist theology and pastoral counseling, and took classes at the Merrill-Palmer Institute on marriage, family, and human sexuality.

Eventually Bielby wanted to leave church-based ministry and became head of the marriage and family life department at the Metropolitan Detroit Council of Churches. It was in 1967, during his time there, that he became a founding member of the Michigan Council for the Study of Abortion, based at the University of Michigan. A public health professor from that group urged Bielby to start a Michigan Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, and Bielby went to New York to learn how from Rev. Howard Moody. Then, Bielby said, he and other clergy met with Michigan State Police representatives to ask them, “How can we do this so that you can’t arrest us?” Bielby observed a Chicago doctor as he performed abortions, and when he returned to Detroit, he actually taught the technique to a prominent gynecologist and helped him to set up an illegal abortion practice in an apartment building.

What Bielby saw as necessary, he accomplished. He left Detroit and worked at other nonprofits, did career counseling–including for clergy who wanted to change careers– went into advertising and promotion, and later started the Redeem the Dream Foundation, which served young musicians. We don’t even know all that he did–he was a man of many interests and talents and enthusiasms. We are grateful for the abortion work that he did, and for his sharing his memories with us.

His July 17 memorial service may be viewed on Carl Bielby’s Facebook page. We extend our sincere condolences to all of his family and friends.

Politics

U.S. Catholic bishops vs. compassion

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ political push to deny communion to politicians who support abortion rights is nothing new. In the 1960s, that body was just about the only organized voice against abortion. But were the bishops less political in those days? No. In 1967, as the New York State Legislature was poised to pass a bill reforming abortion laws, the bishops wrote a pastoral letter calling for Catholics in the state to oppose such reform and directed that the letter be read from every pulpit in the state. The bill was killed in committee–which led pretty directly to the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS).

Were the bishops more in tune with average Catholics (or vice versa) back then? Again, no. In 1965, as now, a majority of American Catholics believed that legal abortions should be available, at least under some circumstances. Compassionate Catholic clergy–both priests and nuns–worked with the CCS, referring desperate parishioners to the group, or serving as post-abortion counselors for Catholic clients. The New York CCS found that about a third of their clients were Catholic. Though he was against abortion, Father Robert F. Drinan, a Jesuit, argued in The Dublin Review in 1967 for repealing laws prohibiting it, saying, “repeal would not mean that the state approves of abortion but only that it declines to regulate it.” Drinan served for a decade as a member of Congress from Massachusetts, but left office to comply with Pope John Paul II’s call for priests to stay out of politics.

The bishops, however, then and now, have never been shy about politics. As Mollie Wilson O’Reilly wrote recently in the Atlantic, “It has become an article of faith among some Catholics that to be a member of the Church in good standing means voting Republican; that this is not literally an article of our faith is something many bishops are content to obfuscate.” O’Reilly points out that Donald Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr, a Catholic, oversaw the reinstatement and increased application of the death penalty. The bishops said nothing about withholding communion from Barr, though the Church condemns capital punishment just as it does abortion.

Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, is quoted in Salon as saying, “To use what is most sacred about our church and sacred to Biden, to punish him or try to bully him into changing his views on abortion rights, is very troubling,” she said. “The bishops taking part in this are part of a right-wing political agenda in this country. It’s very scary.”

Where is the love in all of this? The most compassionate response we’ve read has come from Father John D. Whitney, a Jesuit, who wrote on his Facebook page: “I want to write a longer piece about those bishops who seek to keep some from the table of Christ, but for now I will say this: it is not you[r] table (nor mine). Bishops, priests, etc. are neither the hosts nor the bouncers nor the ones who wrote the guest list. The Eucharist is the resurrected body of Christ given for the life of the world. Jesus Christ is the one who invites the guests (‘all you who labor’); he is the host of those who come; he is the setter of the table; and he is the feast which is shared (‘Take this, all of you. . .this is my body, this is my blood’). We are guests at the meal, and sometimes (by his calling) servers. So stay in your lane, please. The wait staff doesn’t get to exclude those who want to come. If you don’t like the company Christ calls (and, admittedly, it is a rag tag bunch of sinners, one and all), it’s you who need to leave the table, not them.”

Politics

Former peer sex educator elected to U.S. Senate

Much has happened this eventful week. But let’s not forget the good news of the morning of January 6, 2021. The Black voters, Black organizers, and specifically the amazing Stacey Abrams have worked a wonder: transforming Georgia through education, voter registration, and sheer hard work.  Georgia has elected its first Black senator, a Democratic, pro-choice minister, Rev. Raphael Warnock.

Warnock’s reproductive justice credentials go way back. As Anoa Changa wrote in an article for Harper’s Bazaar last month, Warnock worked as a peer sex educator when he was a high school student in Savannah. He was employed by the family health division of Georgia’s Department of Human Resources to write their first sex ed handout for teens. As a Morehouse College student, he organized a team of peer counselors around the state. And when he became a pastor in Baltimore, he brought the faith community together to address HIV/AIDS.

Changa wrote that Warnock’s dedication to sexual health work has its basis in Black liberation theology, a topic Warnock spoke about in a 2013 address at Yale Divinity School.

Of course, we know that, as legal scholar Mary Ziegler wrote in the Atlantic, “There have always been pro-choice pastors such as Reverend Warnock.” But not many have been U.S. senators. We should be jubilant that his faithful support for health care for the vulnerable and abortion rights has been long, consistent, and outspoken, and we can expect Reverend Senator Warnock to continue that fight in the U.S. Senate.

Links, Politics

Thoughts on single-issue voting

Yes, it’s election season in the U.S. And, as they have since the 1980s, anti-abortion activists are busy trying to convince many religious Americans that only one issue should determine their vote: ending access to abortion.

Like the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion before it, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice supports reproductive freedom and has long fought the notion that all people of faith condemn abortion. In fact, most people of faith do not.

And the horrors of the past four years–mistreatment of immigrants and separation of small children from their families, police killings of black people, administration support for white supremacists, withholding of universal health care during a pandemic–have brought out dramatic reminders to “moral-grounds” voters that there are many other issues to consider in an election.

David E. DeCosse, director of religious and Catholic ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, reminds Catholics that “No Catholic is bound to vote on the basis of abortion alone.” In “Catholics, Voting, and Abortion: Time to Correct the Record,” in the National Catholic Reporter, he writes, “. . . Catholics should take abortion seriously but also consider the full range of serious issues at stake. (In other words, for the sake of the common good, it’s generally better not to vote on the basis of a single issue.) In this election, these issues certainly include the character of the candidates, the management of the pandemic, racism, the economy, climate change, immigration, domestic and international peace and more.”

Rev. Carl Kline reflects on his experience as a member of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in an article for the Brookings (South Dakota) Register, “Christians Should Not Focus on a Single Moral Issue.” He wonders why so many Christians focus on abortion–about which Jesus said nothing–and overlook his actual teachings. “It pains me to think Christians can be so focused on a single moral issue that they ignore all the others. Take the issue of killing. Does the command of Jesus include not killing killers, as our president has resumed the death penalty in federal cases in this country; six dead so far? What does Jesus say about 35 bullets sprayed around and into Breonna Taylor; or a knee on a neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until all breath is gone? Or what about southern neighbors, dying in detention centers or sent back to sure death in their own country? Are these the ones Jesus would have us love, as ourself?”

If the Republican senate rushes to approve an anti-choice appointment to the Supreme Court, will anti-abortion voters feel satisfied and turn their election attention to other issues–issues that their religious teachings actually call them to consider? We’ll see.

abortion law, Links

Abortion Law in the Time of Pandemic

Since early spring, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a horrific toll on Americans in ways direct and indirect. Across the country, lawmakers almost immediately seized on the pandemic as an excuse to label abortion a “non-essential” service and attempted either to close down providers or to place further limits on abortion services.

Well, it’s August, and some of the resulting lawsuits have now had a chance to play out. B. Jessie Hill, Judge Ben C. Green Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University School of Law, has been at the center of the legal battle, arguing successfully to keep the Preterm clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, open. Hill offers a summary of the pandemic-era cases in the Virginia Law Review, in “Essentially Elective: The Law and Ideology of Restricting Abortion During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” She concludes that “for long-term protection of abortion rights, abortion must be reframed as a medically necessary and appropriate treatment, and it must be rhetorically re-incorporated into health care more generally.” The article is well worth a read.

Links

How does abortion affect women? Now there’s data.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that some state lawmakers have exploited, trying to label abortion providers “non-essential services.” Wherever they have succeeded–as in Texas–women have had to travel long distances to be treated, during a time when they were supposed to be quarantining at home. It’s one more example of lawmakers oppressing and hurting people in the name of “protecting” them.

Opponents of abortion, reluctant anymore to call abortion “murder,” long ago turned to  claiming that abortion has terrible effects on the recipient. Claims that abortion causes physical ill effects (e.g., breast cancer, infertility), mental health problems (depression, anxiety), or lifelong moral regret continue to be used in legislatures and courtrooms as a reason to ban or restrict abortion. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s ruling in Gonzales vs. Carhart (2007) said, “While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.”

Diana Greene Foster, the principal investigator and author of The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, And the Consequences of Having – Or Being Denied – An Abortion, now provides the reliable data that was lacking in 2007. Foster studied people who had obtained abortions close to the gestational limit imposed in their locality, and people who had been refused abortions for having just exceeded that limit. Investigators  interviewed subjects one week later, then every six months for five years. As Foster told Terry Gross in a Fresh Air interview, “We were interested in their mental health, their physical health, their family’s economic well-being, how they were caring for the children they already have and whether they were having more children over the course of the five years.”

In the first six months, people who had been turned away did worse than those who had had abortions–they had greater anxiety, lower self-esteem, and less life satisfaction. Over the longer term, those who had had abortions were better off financially, were less likely to suffer domestic abuse, formed better maternal bonds with subsequent children, and were rarely regretful. Foster told Gross, “We find that 95% of women who receive an abortion later report that it was the right decision for them. So I think it’s a surprising fact people assume that women feel regret. And I think it’s not that they don’t realize that there are moral questions involved, but they’re weighing their whole life responsibilities and plans and decide this is the right decision for them. . . . I think the most important idea that I would like to convey is to correct the idea that abortion is always a hard decision and that women need more time to think about it and that they can’t be trusted to make a decision that’s best for themselves.”

In the interview, Foster goes on to speak movingly about her two grandmothers, both of whom had abortions at a time when it was illegal. We recommend a listen.

Abortion Access Today, Politics

Abortion bans: about power and control

As reported by TV station KRQE, motorists on I-25 in New Mexico are seeing new billboards with a powerful message: “Rape is about power and control. So are abortion bans. Keep abortion safe and legal.” The billboards are sponsored by Progress Now New Mexico, whose Marianna Anaya writes, “Across the United States, there is an epidemic of politicians, governments and extremists who are trying to assert power and control over our bodies by means of banning abortion- a personal decision that should always remain between a person and their doctor. By taking away our personal decision-making abilities, we are being stripped of respect, and being stripped of autonomy.”

And a recent poll of U.S. voters backs up the billboards’ message. The Supermajority/PerryUndem poll found “that anti-abortion voters are among the most likely – if not the most likely – segment to hold inegalitarian views” regarding gender equality. In other words, as Jill Filipovic writes in The Guardian, “Anti-abortion advocacy pushes the view that life begins at conception; the name of their movement carefully centers the conceit that opposition to abortion rights is simply about wanting to save human lives. A new poll shows that’s a lie. The ‘pro-life’ movement is fundamentally about misogyny.” She follows up with the details; do read her whole column.

This year let’s be inspired by that New Mexico billboard to call misogyny–and racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and all forms of hateful disempowerment–exactly what it is, and work together to make better policy, better laws, a better world. Our voices–including our billboards–our work, our donations, and most of all our votes can make the change.

History

50 Years Ago: Not Just Woodstock

1969 was quite a year. This year we’ve observed the 50th anniversaries of the first moon landing and Woodstock. But 1969 was quite a year–for good and ill–in the realm of reproductive rights, too.  That year, seven states passed bills liberalizing their abortion laws to some degree. A sampling of some more 50th anniversaries we should be noting this year:

January: The radical feminist Redstockings group formed. In March 1969 they held a meeting at Washington Square Methodist Church in New York at which women publicly spoke of their abortion experiences.

February: The feminist group Jane formed in Chicago in February, at first to refer women to illegal abortion providers they had judged to be safe. When they realized that their main practitioner was not, in fact, a physician, members of the group learned to do the procedure themselves.

February 14-16: NARAL was founded, starting with the First National Conference on Abortion Laws in Chicago. The theme was “Modification or Repeal?” The organizers included writer Larry Lader, who had played a big part in urging the clergy to make abortion referrals; Chicago physician Lonny Myers; and ecologist Garrett Hardin. Speakers at the conference included Dr. Bernard Nathanson–soon to become director of the Women’s Services abortion clinic opened by the Clergy Consultation Service, and later an anti-abortion activist; and feminist writer Betty Friedan.

April: The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) received a blackmail threat, and the New York Police Department itself helped Rev. Howard Moody to set up a sting to catch the culprit. (See pages 77-78 of To Offer Compassion.)

April 17: A moderate bill to reform abortion law in New York, sponsored by Assemblyman Albert H. Blumenthal, was defeated for a third time in the State Assembly. The bill would finally pass the following year, legalizing abortion in New York and permitting the 1970 opening of the CCS Women’s Services clinic in New York City.

May 19: Activist Bill Baird was sentenced to three months in jail for “exhibiting obscene objects” (contraceptives) and distributing such an object (handing a student a package of Emko contraceptive foam) at a public lecture in Massachusetts.

May 19: An 18-year old from Bay Village, Ohio, died in London. The Cleveland CCS had referred her to a previously very reliable clinic and was horrified at her death. The head of the Cleveland CCS, Rev. Farley Wheelwright, flew to London. He learned–and the official inquest confirmed–that her death was not the result of her abortion but of post-operative negligence by the anesthesiologist, who was dismissed by the clinic. (Page 78, To Offer Compassion.)

May 23: The New York City Police raided a group of abortion providers in Riverdale, Bronx. Writer Larry Lader and a few CCS counselors had referred to the group. Lader, Moody, Arlene Carmen, Rev. Finley Schaef, and other members of the CCS testified before a grand jury in the case that September. No charges against counselors came from the case.

June 10: Rev. Robert Hare of the Cleveland Clergy Consultation Service was indicted by Massachusetts for referring a woman to Dr. Pierre Brunelle for an abortion. Hare appeared in court in Massachusetts. Brunelle was convicted–he was unlicensed in Massachusetts at the time, for a start–and Hare’s charges were dismissed. But in a rare move, the prosecutor appealed the dismissal. The case was still in flux in early 1973 when the RoeWade decision by the Supreme Court made the matter moot. (Pages 78-83, To Offer Compassion.)

September 5: For the first time in the U.S., an abortion law was declared unconstitutional. The Supreme Court of California ruled that the state’s old abortion law, which permitted abortion only when necessary to preserve a woman’s life, and under which Dr. Leon P. Belous had been convicted, was unconstitutionally vague. Importantly, the Belous decision cited an established right to privacy and liberty in reproductive decisions. (Note: The case had great symbolic but little practical importance at the time, as California had passed a reformed abortion law in 1967, after Belous had been charged.)

November 10: Now, for the first time, an abortion law was declared unconstitutional by a federal court. Federal District Court Judge Gerhard A. Gesell dismissed the indictment of Dr. Milan Vuitch for performing abortions in the District of Columbia, ruling the law unconstitutionally vague on the subject. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court, which in 1971 overturned the ruling as to vagueness, but treated abortion as it would any other surgical procedure and upheld the judgment of physicians in medical decisions. Very shortly after that appeal, the Supreme Court justices voted to take up other abortion cases, including RoeWade.

And, in 1969, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion continued to expand. New chapters officially opened in nine more states, including Colorado, Ohio, and Virginia; several more started referrals but were not yet public; and many more were in the works.

Abortion Access Today, Links

Remembering what we’re going back to: Testimony from a CCS client

The escalating state-by-state attacks on reproductive rights these past few days, weeks, and months have us in a momentary state of shocked paralysis. It was one thing to write last year about where things were headed in theory; the reality, now that it is arriving on a daily basis, is still a horrific surprise. While we gather our wits and energy, we are so grateful to all the activists and organizations who have not paused for a second and are already deep in the fray, bringing lawsuits, protesting, forming help networks, donating to abortion access funds, and, yes, writing. We were especially touched to read the personal story of Carla Nordstrom in Huffpost Personal today. Ms. Nordstrom was a client of the Clergy Consultation Service who obtained an abortion in Pittsburgh–though this doctor certainly would have been removed from their referral list if anyone reported his dirty instruments. Thank you to the author and to all who are finding the strength to share their abortion stories, whether at length or in a #YouKnowMe tweet. For resources and ways to help, we recommend Robin Marty’s very practical Handbook for a Post-Roe America (Seven Stories Press, 2019), and we will be back in the fight by Monday morning, we promise.

Abortion Access Today, Links

Opinion: Ohio’s Heartbeat Bill a Throwback to the Bad Old Days

Ohio’s legislature has passed a bill to ban abortions once a fetal heartbeat can be detected. Well, that’s at about 6 weeks, before many women even know that they are pregnant, so the effect is that abortion will be banned in Ohio. As we all know, that doesn’t mean that people won’t seek and find abortions however they can . . . it just makes those abortions much more dangerous.

New governor Mike DeWine has already vowed to sign the legislation.

Our opinion piece on the subject, with a short but instructive history of the Clergy Consultation Service’s experience, appears in the Cincinnati Enquirer today.