In 1972, before Roe v. Wade was decided, I had a moment of clarity: People needed access to safe abortions, and clergy needed to respond.
Watching the young women in my community forced to choose between unsafe abortions or no abortions at all pushed me to create the Missouri chapter of the Clergy Consultation Services in 1972. I was the Assistant Dean at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri — the second-oldest women’s college in the country. The students I worked with were my congregation — and they had a need that was going unmet. Young women who needed abortions were quite literally getting them in alleys around the school, often from Vietnam veterans who had served in the medical corps, charging $100 a procedure. I decided that was unacceptable. Something needed to change.
I had heard about the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS), founded by Reverend Howard Moody in New York City. When I reached out, Reverend Moody helped me launch the Missouri chapter of CCS. We were a small organization — me in Columbia, two other clergy members in St. Louis and Kansas City, and our lawyer. The law in Missouri at the time was that if you helped someone get an abortion, that was an illegal action, punishable by jail time.
We knew the risks, and we did it anyway — my secretary at the time knew that when the police came by, she was to call my lawyer first, and my wife second. It was always a “when,” not an “if.”
But my colleagues and I believed this was our moral responsibility. I had a population — the young women I worked with at Stephens — and I needed to serve them, and this was how. They needed to hear from the clergy they trusted that abortion was a religiously ethical choice. But more than that, they needed safe abortions and safe people to help get them to their providers, and we could do that. The practical support was just as important as the pastoral. I remember once giving my personal credit card to a student who needed an abortion — that’s the power of private individuals, coming together under their own moral beliefs, to make a difference.
Today, 50 years later, I’m right back in that moment.
After Roe was decided, the religious community lost momentum in its commitment to abortion rights. CCS ultimately disbanded — once abortion was legal, there was far less need for our network of support. We became RCRC and took a different approach to religious reproductive freedom work. There was still work to be done, but it was programmatic in nature, and less about the more “clandestine” work of literally getting people on the turnpike to an abortion provider.
And you know what happened next. The religious narrative about abortion was co-opted by the far right, and in the battle for abortion access, religious institutions became the enemy. And now, because of that shift in the narrative, millions of people in the United States have once again lost the right to abortion.
It’s time for us to reclaim the moral high ground. Abortion is ethical. Reproductive choice is ethical. There is a theological case for abortion as a moral good, and we need to bring back that narrative.
But more than that, we need to reclaim our commitment to the groundwork of civil disobedience. When the law is unjust, we challenge the law. Sometimes that happens at the ballot box, or in the streets. But sometimes, it happens on the highway. That’s what pregnant people needed before Roe v. Wade was decided, and it’s what they need now that it’s fallen.
In the 50 years since RCRC was formed, thousands of clergy have come forward to learn the language of reproductive choice and spiritual care. And today, we need clergy to do more than care — we need to once again take a leadership role.
For me, getting people access to the abortion care they needed was my faith ethic in action. It was the social implementation of my faith in the real world. I wasn’t the only one then, and I’m not the only one now. Let’s reclaim the narrative. Let’s mobilize a movement of practical abortion support. Let’s live out our faith.
-Reverend Bill Kirby