Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion: A Brief History
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter Pays Tribute in Congressional Record
One of the little known facts about the dark days when abortion
was illegal was that hundreds of clergy came together in a volunteer network
to provide compassionate counseling and spiritual support to women.
May 21, 2007, marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment
of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a network initially formed
by 21 ministers and rabbis to assist women seeking safe, secure, and low-cost
abortions and to provide advice on such alternatives as adoption and parenting.
The service eventually grew to include about 1,400 clergy across the nation,
who referred thousands of women to doctors in the U.S. and abroad, and became
the forerunner of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
In 1967, when the service was established in New York City,
the only legal reason for performing an abortion in New York State was to
save the life of the woman. It was estimated that criminal abortions exceeded
legal ones by a ratio of about 100 to 1. In the United States, more one million
women each year were forced to seek illegal abortions, which often caused
severe mental anguish, physical suffering, and death. The largest percentage
of abortion deaths were among women aged 35-39 with five or six children.
Rev. Howard R. Moody, the senior minister of the Judson Memorial
Church in New York City, organized the consultation service. The first public
announcement of the consultation service appeared on the front page of the
New York Times on May 22, 1967, and quoted Rev. Moody: “If legal therapeutic
abortion is not possible, but an abortion is indicated, we will try to get
the woman the best possible medical advice to take care of her problem pregnancy.
In some instances it is possible we would attempt to facilitate her getting
an abortion in a country where it is legal.”
In the 600-word statement announcing the consultation service,
the clergy pledged to work for the enactment of a liberalized abortion law
in New York State:
“In the meantime,” they said, “women are being
driven alone and afraid into the underworld of criminality or the dangerous
practice of self-induced abortion.
“Confronted with a difficult decision and means of implementing
it, women today are forced by ignorance, misinformation and desperation into
courses of action that require humane concern on the part of religious leaders.”
The statement continued:
“We are mindful that there are fully licensed and reputable physicians
who in their wisdom perform therapeutic abortions which some may regard as
illegal. When a doctor performs such an operation motivated by compassion
and concern for the patient, and not simply for monetary gain, we do not regard
him as a criminal, but as living by the highest standards of religion and
of the Hippocratic oath.
“Therefore believing as clergymen that there are higher
laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes, we believe that it is
our pastoral responsibility and religious duty to give aid and assistance
to all women with problem pregnancies. To that end we are establishing a Clergymen’s
Consultation Service on Abortion which will include referral to the best available
medical advice and aid to women in need.”
Years later, Rev. Moody recalled:
"As soon as we opened that door, women came from all over
the country. They came by plane and train and bus and car and we were deluged.
Even though there were 26 ministers and rabbis, we were overloaded. I did
counseling six hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six. So I'd call Philadelphia
and I'd say to my friend, ‘Look, why are all these women coming to New
York to get this information? Why can't they get it there?’ And he said,
'You mean, you want me to do...?' I said, 'Yeah, I want you to do it.' And
so then they got trained. It was a very heavy-duty emotional issue, and consequently
to have the religious institutions affirming their decision was very important
at that time in history.”
“I don't think any other group except religious institutions
could have done this.”
Honor these heroic clergy with a contribution
to the Rev. Moody Clergy Consultation Fund