‘God Loves Women Who Have Abortions’: The Religious Abortion Advocates That History Forgot
The New York legislature had just failed to pass an incremental reform to the state’s strict anti-abortion law, leaving the status quo in place. At that time, deaths resulting from illegal abortions accounted for 42 percent of New York City’s maternal mortality rate. While wealthy women could use their “connections” to have illegal yet safe abortions performed in hospitals, less privileged women didn’t have that option. According to a survey of low-income women who had abortions in the 1960s, eight in ten said that they had attempted a self-induced procedure, and only two percent said that a trained physician was involved in any way.
Rev. Howard Moody, the minister of the historic Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan, couldn’t stand by and watch any longer. He started gathering with a group of faith leaders to talk about how they might help women get connected with the illicit “abortionists” who could perform a safe procedure. Those pastors and rabbis formed what came to be known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.
That May, they announced their new organization in a front page story in the New York Times. In consultation with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the religious leaders decided their best strategy for avoiding getting in trouble with the law — the charge for “aiding and abetting” an illegal abortion was a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison — was total transparency. They wanted to operate out in the open, sending the message that they were choosing to defy the law in order to adhere to a higher moral code. And they ultimately initiated a long, yet mostly overlooked, history of clergy-assisted work toward ensuring women’s reproductive autonomy.