A June 10 article in the New York Times—“Religious Liberals Sat Out of Politics for 40 Years. Now They Want in the Game,” by Laurie Goodstein– overlooked the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion–a pivotal religious progressive movement of the 1960s that is undergoing a revival today. Actually, pro-choice clergy never really “sat out”; over the last 40 years, a small but active contingent of clergy, some of them original CCS members and others who have took up their cause of compassion, have worked with Planned Parenthood, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and other groups to advocate for reproductive rights. Over those years, although they remained active as pro-choice policy advocates, their voices have often been drowned out by the louder voices of religious anti-abortion activists. But clergy and people of faith—such as Rev. Donna Schaper of Judson Memorial Church in New York City (a CCS member when she was a seminary student in Chicago) and Christian physician Willie Parker–are now reclaiming a religious voice for the reproductive justice movement, and there is discussion of reviving the CCS for this new era. A new, more diverse CCS is likely to emerge, emphasizing the way reproductive rights intersect with related concerns–racism, gender, poverty, immigration, and healthcare in general.
Latishia James writes for Rewire: “I’ve had the privilege of sitting across from someone who was about to or just had an abortion, and I can attest to the impact of hearing that story. Listening to someone who’s had or is considering having an abortion share their hopes and fears goes a long way in shifting perspective. But perhaps more importantly, it goes a long way in helping you separate your own personal feelings from your ability to simply be present for someone else in a time of need.”
And she goes on to describe the many practical ways clergy–and other people of faith–can show compassion for women in need of reproductive healthcare, from public advocacy and preaching to simply being present, supporting and listening to women, one to one. Read the full article at Rewire.
Follow Rev. James on Twitter @PurposefullyLJ.
A new generation of clergy–and at least one minister who was part of the original Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in the 1960s, Rev. Tom Davis–showed support for women’s health care and reproductive rights in Albany, New York, last week. They “condemned the recent actions of the federal government to eliminate protections and funding for health care,” according to Legislative Gazette reporter Sarah Eames.
As state senator Liz Krueger said, “‘The true fight for the rights of women to make their own decisions with their doctors about reproductive health has been led by clergy in the state for decades,’ Krueger said. ‘Long before we actually passed the law in 1970, it was clergy helping through a then-illegal network to assure that women could find safe kinds of healthcare for themselves.’”.
Davis was honored for his work with the CCS by Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner.
Read the full article by Sarah Eames for The Legislative Gazette here.
Photo of New York State legislature:
(c) Can Stock Photo / demerzel21
Have you ever had a breast biopsy? Endoscopy? Arthroscopic knee surgery? Gall bladder removal? D&C? Vasectomy? Chances are, if you’ve had any of those surgical procedures in the United States in the last 20 years or so, you didn’t stay overnight in the hospital. You walked in and walked—or at least wheeled—out again the same day.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1960s, knee surgery, vasectomy, even D&Cs and legal abortions (usually approved by a committee of doctors only in cases of serious threat to the woman’s life) involved a hospital stay of one or more nights. It was accepted medical practice.
But from 1967 to 1970, many thousands of women were obtaining safe abortions—usually illegally—on an outpatient basis, referred to licensed physicians by the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS). The ministers and rabbis of the CCS gave women information on how to contact doctors who performed abortions safely in their offices or in hotel rooms, houses, or apartments. Women walked in, had the procedure, and walked out an hour or two later, usually with no ill effects. They could be back at work in just a couple of days.
In 1970, New York State legalized abortion. By that time the CCS had referred thousands of women for abortion, nearly all as outpatients, without a single death. They invited a doctor to whom they had referred many women, and who had been praised as competent and caring by his patients, to help open an outpatient abortion clinic in New York City on the day abortion became legal.
The clinic, known as Women’s Services, set a standard for compassionate care. Women counselors accompanied patients through the entire procedure; the offices were decorated with colorful posters to offer a welcoming environment; snacks were available during recovery, since patients had not eaten for hours before the procedure. Women flocked to the clinic from across the country, often flying in and home again the same day.
The high volume of patients offered an unprecedented study opportunity. In 1972, the then director of the clinic, Dr. Bernard N. Nathanson (later an anti-abortion activist), published in the New England Journal of Medicine a study of the 26,000 patients served in the first year of the clinic’s operation. There had been no known deaths and a very low rate of complication for first-trimester abortions at the clinic, proof that a procedure that traditionally required a hospital stay could be done safely and much less expensively on an outpatient basis.
Women’s Services later helped to pioneer outpatient breast biopsies—another procedure that had previously required a hospital admission. And there was discussion of creating an outpatient birthing center (though that plan never came to fruition). Outpatient surgery and procedures grew in scope through the 1980s up to the present day. Now dozens of kinds of routine surgical procedures are offered on an outpatient basis. Patients avoid a hospital stay, save money, and often recover more quickly. And the pioneers of this revolution were those ministers and rabbis of the CCS, who just wanted to offer women compassion.
Photo: (c) Can Stock Photo / EyeMark
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.