The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion started offering counseling and referrals for abortion in New York City three years before the procedure was legal in New York and six years before Roe v. Wade was decided, but its existence was never a secret. In fact, the group of 21 ministers and rabbis, which would eventually grow into a network of more than a thousand, first announced themselves in The New York Times.
The story, under the headline CLERGYMEN OFFER ABORTION ADVICE, ran on May 22, 1967. The Reverend Howard Moody, a former Marine turned senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan and spokesperson for the group, said in the piece that the network of clergy would counsel women seeking legal therapeutic abortions. (Life endangerment was the only legal way to obtain an abortion in those years, but it was an option closed off to all but the wealthiest women who could find sympathetic physicians.) If a legal abortion was not an option, Moody continued, “we will try to get the woman the best possible medical advice to take care of her problem pregnancy.” Doing so would involve some legal risk, he said, but “we are not willing to admit that it is illegal.”
In the years before Roe, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which eventually expanded from New York to states across the country, helped thousands of women obtain illegal abortions. As a way to mark the 45th anniversary of Roe, I spent an afternoon in the Judson offices, sorting through its archives from this period.
I read memos about physicians who had been shut down by the cops or had mistreated a patient and were blacklisted from the referral service. A script for people to record an outgoing phone message for women looking for help. Drafts for public statements announcing the group’s work to the world and talking points to help make their case in churches and state legislatures. The mundane artifacts of a small revolution.
In the face of malicious policy and an indifferent state, ordinary people came together, at great legal risk, to offer material support to total strangers. These stories of resistance and mutual care, which stretch across time and circumstance, are part of a shadow history of the United States.
As we remember what came before Roe and brace ourselves for what may come next, these commitments are worth remembering. What we have is each other.
1967: ‘Because of a common concern’
As discussions about starting a referral service turned into practice, founding members outlined their responsibilities, both to the women they would serve and to one another.
Circa 1967: ‘A unique new service’
A flyer advertising CCS as a service for women with “problem pregnancies.” When asked about the inverted text on the front of the flyer, Judson archivist Abigail Hastings laughed, “Someone must have been new to formatting.”
Circa 1967: ‘You are being answered electronically’
A script for an automated response in the early years of CCS. But women were still seen without a note from a physician, Moody wrote in his memoir A Voice in the Village, because “most doctors refused even this minimal assistance, fearing that to do so would incriminate them.”
1968: ‘This is urgent’
Screening doctors was an essential part of CCS’ work, but it often posed its own risks. After a doctor was referred to CCS, Arlene Carmen, Moody’s colleague at Judson and a driving force behind the referral service, would pose as a pregnant woman, taking notes on the facilities and doctor. “On several occasions, she left before even seeing the doctor because the conditions were so poor,” according to Moody.
Doctors were sometimes removed from the referral network, either because their practices had been shut down by legal authorities or because they were no longer considered trustworthy. Other times, members would act as a warning system if women had reported being mistreated or ripped off while attempting to obtain care.
This was the only time CCS experienced a blackmail threat, according to Moody. Still, it shocked the group. Members knew what they were doing was illegal, and they knew the associated risks. “What we hadn’t anticipated was a threat from the very people we were serving,” Moody wrote in A Voice in the Village.
1969: An illegal clinic of one’s own
With the fate of the reform movement uncertain in 1969, CCS considered opening its own clinic in New York City, both to offer a more direct service to its clients and as a political dare to state lawmakers standing in the way of legalization. “There were two goals that we deemed important: to demonstrate the feasibility and safety of performing abortions, and to expose the hypocrisy of a law which allowed ‘therapeutic’ abortions in hospitals for the rich, but denied them for the poor,” Moody wrote.
The clinic was to be housed on the second floor of Judson, according to minutes from a church Board meeting in March 1970:
The Board considered a proposal from Howard Moody that the second floor of [Judson] House be renovated for use as an “abortorium.” Howard explained that whether or not the abortion repeal bill is passed, a model will be needed to show women, doctors and hospitals that abortions can be safely performed under office conditions. Setting up such a program would probably cost about $40,000, and there should be little difficulty about raising this. The volume [of patients] would start at about 35 per week and would hopefully increase with the recruiting of additional doctors. Cost of the operation should average about $75 with patients paying according to their resources. Ron Bailey reported that the [Judson] House Committee had approved the proposal. . . . The Board voted to accept the recommendation of the [Judson] House Committee giving authority to the staff to move ahead.
A month later, the proposal for an illegal clinic became moot. Abortion was legalized in New York in April of 1970.
Circa 1969: ‘No man has the wisdom’
In addition to offering counseling and referral services to women seeking abortions, CCS lobbied to repeal laws criminalizing abortion and equipped its members with talking points to refute common arguments against reform.
Circa 1970: ‘Save and share with friends’
After abortion was legalized in New York, CCS offered materials to help women advocate for themselves as patients in the newly established free-standing clinics.
1972: Complacency is a trap
Even as more states liberalized their abortion laws, Moody and others recognized the threat posed by the nascent anti-abortion movement. They organized with the New York Civil Liberties Union to continue lobbying to protect any ground gained.
1973: ‘A race against time’
In 1973, Moody was optimistic about the direction the country was heading on abortion. He predicted, correctly, that public support for abortion rights would grow over time. But there is something tragic about reading his words, all these years later, and knowing how the basic promise of Roe is still unrealized for so many women. “No one can say what the future holds on this issue of abortion,” Moody wrote, though I believe he would recognize our present, similar as it is to our past.