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What We Can Learn From the Clergy Who Helped Women Get Abortions Before Roe

Faith leaders who support abortion access must reclaim the moral conversation.

In the time before Roe v. Wade established the legal right to abortion in the US, women were dying because they couldn’t access safe abortion care, and faith leaders stepped in to help. On May 22, 1967, an article appeared on the front page of The New York Times announcing that a group including Protestant, Reform Jewish, and even some Catholic faith leaders had officially created a network to help women find and access safe abortion care. This was revolutionary — both because the pre-Roe political and legal environment was so hostile to abortion and because faith leaders had seldom spoken out so publicly on the issue.

This work had been going on quietly for years, but the announcement was a game-changer: the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) — an organization that eventually came to boast nearly 2,000 members and assist hundreds of thousands of people in accessing safe abortion care — was born.

As we celebrate this anniversary, it is imperative that we also reflect on why faith leaders entered this work. For Howard Moody, then senior minister at Judson Memorial Church, and others like him, this work — prompted initially by concern for the lives and livelihoods of women in crisis — became a full-blown human rights struggle. In time, the CCS came to focus on broader issues of reproductive health care access particularly for young women, poor women and women of color who often were priced out of care even when it was legal and available.

Faith Leaders Moved to Serve Women in Era of Unsafe, Illegal Abortion

Rarely have stories about the CCS paid much attention to why and how faith leaders arrived at decisions to actively support women seeking abortion care. In this historical moment, when some politicians are using faith language and claims about “religious freedom” in ever more alarming ways to support oppressive policies against women, LGBTQIA+ and gender nonconforming people, racial and religious minorities and young people, it behooves us to look closely at the inspiration for this work that became publicly solidified 50 years ago — and has never stopped.

According to a recent article in Time magazine, Rev. Charles Landreth, a CCS member in Tallahassee, Florida, was quoted as saying, “Whenever we try to make conditions for each other more human, we are engaged in a religious pursuit,” and many CCS chapters advertised publicly that they believed themselves to be operating under, “higher laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes.” In other words, the faith leaders who were engaged in this work viewed it as inseparable from other justice and human flourishing-oriented work.

This work was never understood as done in spite of faith, but because of it.

From Emotional Support to Opening a Clinic

Additionally, it must be acknowledged that the New York CCS and many others did not stop at simply finding and guiding women to safe abortion care. Many CCS groups focused their attention on providing access and removing barriers for the most vulnerable women in their communities. In several states, abortion was legal if considered medically necessary. This meant that a woman with enough income could form a relationship with a health care provider and have the termination of an unintended pregnancy declared medically necessary with little trouble.

Poor women often did not have access to a “friendly” medical provider. Recognizing that poor women had few choices, the New York City CCS decided to do more than just connect women with providers. They decided to open a clinic — even offering $25 care to those in dire need.

Even after abortion was legalized, other clinics in the state could no longer charge exorbitant amounts for abortion care and compete. This practical ministry became a life-saver to poor women, young women and women of color who had been locked out of care or forced to seek unsafe abortions due to financial limitations.

Misusing Faith to Justify New Restrictions

The CCS was vocal about understanding that creating space for human flourishing — including that which control over reproductive decisions provides — is a moral imperative. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, conservative Christians — dissatisfied with civil rights gains by people of color and women, and aided by the far political right — began to actively shift the Christian narrative to support their oppressive agenda against women’s bodily autonomy. Shortly after Roe v. Wade came the Hyde Amendment, put in place to target poor women by denying coverage for abortion care. As

As rhetoric of faith has been misused by some to justify interference with women’s decisions, the last few years alone have brought with them at least 334 restrictions on abortion access, many of which are medically unnecessary, incredibly burdensome, and designed to shame women and shut clinics down. It’s unconscionable.

Reclaiming the Moral High Ground and Faith Perspective

It’s time for clergy to reclaim our rightful place as the moral leaders in the fight for human rights and social justice — which includes the fight for safe, respectful and affordable abortion care. The sacred text of my tradition declares, “The one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion.” For 50 years, we have stood together, and for 50 more, we will continue to stand with people seeking access to the best care for their whole lives.

Through SisterReach’s faith-based work in Tennessee, and the work of faith leaders across the country who remain committed to reproductive justice, we will follow the lead of those who came before us by declaring our moral imperative to provide access to the best care for all people. We will do our best to actively remove barriers for vulnerable people and move others toward doing the same. We will continue to prioritize the health and safety of the people in our communities over political or singularly religious agendas. This is the good work begun in us and we will continue it because of our faith.

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