Doris Dirks and Patricia Relf are the authors of a new book, To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, published today by the University of Wisconsin Press. In this guest post, they reflect on the social justice activism of the little-known Clergy Consultation Service, a religious organization of the 1960s and early 1970s dedicated to providing women with safe abortions.
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 all people of faith, especially the clergy, were opposed to abortion.
Just since 2010, states have adopted 334* abortion restrictions , 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 fiftieth 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. Will 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, antiwar, and women’s rights movements.
When we first started researching the CCS in 2002, we wondered where the voices of progressive clergy were in the social justice movements of the twenty-first 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. A broad network of thirty-seven Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations announced a campaign to mobilize congregants to lobby Congress and the president on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented people.
We are experiencing divisive and turbulent times. The CCS provides a historical example of how clergy acted in the past to help women get safe abortions. It provides an example for social justice activism today.
*research published in 2016 by the Guttmacher Institute.
is a senior academic planner with the University of Wisconsin System Administration.
is a freelance writer.