Pro-Choice Clergy Saved Lives Before “Roe.” They’re Mobilizing to Do It Again.

Before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973, a group of ministers and rabbis launched what became the largest abortion referral support service in the United States. The Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) helped hundreds of thousands of people access safe abortions because its members saw saving these people’s lives as a moral obligation.

Now, with the repeal of legal abortion all but assured by Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, people of faith are again mobilizing to fulfill that obligation.

“The church is going to become front and center to this all over again in the same way that CCS was,” Elaina Ramsey, executive director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told Truthout.

That work could range from making out-of-state referrals for people who live in states like Ohio that will automatically ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned, to more direct action — or what Ramsey called “prophetic civil disobedience.”

“That may mean congregations really involved in self-managed abortions through the abortion pill,” Ramsey said. “That might mean ordering it for your congregants and teaching people that it’s a safe practice.”

“The church is going to have to become another space for that, kind of very similar to how the sanctuary movement reacts and responds to unjust immigration policies,” Ramsey added.

Jewish leaders are preparing, too. In June, the National Council of Jewish Women launched Rabbis for Repro, a network that includes 1,000 Jewish leaders across every denomination who have pledged to preach and teach about reproductive rights, according to the council’s scholar in residence, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg.

“If we need to show up and be literally on the ground helping people get the care they need then we will do that,” Ruttenberg said. “We have done it before.”

In 1967, 21 Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis in New York City announced they had formed a network to help people obtain abortions, even though the procedure was allowed in New York only if pregnant person’s life was in danger. Soon, clergy members across the United States and Canada were helping people access safe abortions through what scholar Bridgette Dunlap described in The Atlantic as a “a kind of pre-Internet Yelp for illicit abortion providers.” After New York legalized abortion in 1970, the clergy opened a clinic there. This history, and the involvement of people of faith in the struggle for reproductive rights since then, belies the common myth that all people of faith oppose abortion.

“That understanding of abortion, and particularly saying that abortion is against religious law, is actually a particular, Christian, conservative interpretation,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the Jewish human rights organization T’ruah, told Truthout. “Judaism has a much more complex understanding of abortion, including that life does not begin at conception, it begins at birth; the life of the mother always comes before the fetus.” In fact, abortion becomes an obligation under Jewish law if the pregnant person’s life is at risk, Jacobs said. Eighty-three percent of Jews believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

While a majority of white Evangelical Protestants want abortion to be illegal in all or most cases, that opinion does not hold across other Christian groups. A long-term Pew study released in 2019 showed that 56 percent of Catholics, 60 percent of white mainline Protestants and 64 percent of Black Protestants believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In a new report, Fred Clarkson, a leading analyst of the Christian Right for the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, asks how this mass of people could become a movement.

“There is a vast pro-choice religious community with a vibrant history and world

changing potential,” Clarkson writes. “This enormous sector of American society is under-recognized, under-reported on, and under-organized. Because this is so, it is also a virtually untapped source of power and hope for the future of reproductive freedom, access, and justice.”

In the 1970s, conservative operatives incensed by government attempts to desegregate religious schools seized on abortion as a political cause they believed would mobilize Evangelical voters. In the decades since, the Christian Right has built power in part through so-called parachurch organizations — entities that have a religious mission but operate across and often in coalition with multiple religious denominations. Groups like Youth for Christ and Focus on the Family have “evangelized, recruited, and trained people in theologies, skills, and ecumenical organizing activities,” Clarkson writes. Meanwhile, legal powerhouses like the Alliance Defending Freedom have advanced an anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ agenda in the name of religious freedom, cinching 60 victories in the Supreme Court. (Attempts to advance progressive ideals in the name of religious liberty have fared less well in the courts.) The Christian Right has succeeded in chipping away at abortion access in part because its participants have set aside major differences in order to build a unified political force. Catholics and Southern Baptists, for example, have clashed historically over which version of Christianity is authentic — and yet they have been willing to work together, Clarkson said.

“The Christian Right overcame all kinds of historic differences to arrive at the political place where they are,” Clarkson told Truthout in an interview. “They despise each other, don’t trust each other and are competing against one another — how did they manage to find enough commonality so that they could join forces in that way and set aside their differences for common purpose?”

The pro-choice and progressive religious communities face a more complex path to this kind of consensus, in part because they are more racially and religiously diverse, and because they operate more democratically than, say, the Catholic Church. “How the moderate to progressive religious community would do that will be different, but as soon as they decide that that’s what they have to do, the path to progress and even historic victory will emerge,” Clarkson said.

Perhaps the most hopeful element of Clarkson’s report is that it highlights the work already underway to awaken what he describes, in an accompanying essay for Religion Dispatches, as a “sleeping giant.” An annotated directory attached to the report points to the pro-choice and reproductive justice elements of faith traditions, including Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Native American perspectives. What emerges is a set of nuanced and diverse spiritual understandings of abortion at odds with the monolithic narrative claimed by the Christian Right.

Among the report’s most promising examples of interfaith work is the Texas Freedom Network (TFN)’s campaign to educate congregations in one of the most restrictive states for abortion access. The organization has mobilized 25 congregations that publicly affirm three principles: They “trust and respect women”; they treat people without “stigma, shame, or judgment” for their reproductive decisions; and they believe that “access to comprehensive and affordable reproductive health services is a moral and social good.”

Another 70 congregations are considering adopting these principles; because the goal is to change the culture of abortion stigma, the process of educating and engaging with these congregations can take a long time, Reverend Erika Forbes, outreach and faith coordinator for TFN, told Truthout.

Forbes has worked to destigmatize abortion among people of faith by speaking from the pulpit about her own two abortions and by promoting an expansive vision of religious freedom.

“We’re talking about the entire life cycle of any human being, and what does it mean to talk about the freedom to choose when you have children, whether you can parent those children in healthy and safe communities, and [have] access to the particular ways in which children and families thrive?” Forbes told Truthout. “When we put it in that framework and when we are very clear as people of faith consistently with that message, then we become the same force that we see in the Evangelical or in conservative communities.”

Like Clarkson, Forbes has chosen a message of hope that religious and secular activists alike may find encouraging in the weeks to come, as the Republican-led Senate moves to confirm Amy Coney Barrett. “I know that right now it seems dire, but this is when everyone can lean on people of faith because we have been prepared for times such as this,” Forbes said.

Texas is among the states that have all but regulated abortion out of existence for anyone who lacks the hundreds or thousands of dollars and multiple days that it can take to access it. But some activists believe the fall of Roe could, overnight, offer a catalyst for the kind of political movement that Clarkson envisions. “There is a deep level of resiliency that we are tapping into, the likes of which no one has ever seen, because there hasn’t been a demand for it,” Forbes said.

“My message, without a doubt, is not just one of hope, but one of infinite resilience that we’re coming from a wellspring that is infinite, and that when we stand on the right side of this moral argument, there will be no stopping us,” Forbes added. “Just as you see the resiliency and the determination of a dandelion coming through the cement, that’s us, that’s us as faith people, that’s us as people who know that there is nothing that’s going to keep us from having the right and the access to healthy, safe abortion.”