Religion and abortion are frequently perceived as opposing each other, but not too long ago, some religious leaders viewed a woman’s right to choose as a moral imperative. In 1967, a group of 27 Protestant ministers and Jewish rabbis, driven by their strong theological convictions, came together to assist women in obtaining safe abortions.
Their service was announced in a story printed on the front page of the New York Times (which misidentified the group as containing only 21 members; 6 just missed joining before the launch date), and the result was an international referral ministry — the largest in the country before Roe v. Wade legalized the procedure — called the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, headquartered at Judson Memorial Church.
This weekend, Judson will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the CCS with a series of events called “Stand by Me: People of Faith Helping Women Find Safe Abortions.”
Citing “higher laws and moral obligations transcending legal codes,” the CCS grew to include around 2,000 clergy members — including some Catholic nuns and priests — across the United States and Canada, and helped between a quarter and a half-million women obtain safe abortions by 1972, according to the July 1971 National Clergy Consultation Service Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1. After abortion was legalized in New York in 1970, the CCS opened a clinic in the East Fifties in Manhattan, where the procedure was performed.
A key component to the CCS’ support for reproductive justice is the lack of Biblical opposition to it, said Abigail Hastings, an archivist at Judson who is coordinating this weekend’s events.
“What I try to impress is that, for one thing, there’s always been abortion. It is not outlawed in the Bible,” Hastings told the Voice. “There is not a scriptural reference to pin this on. There have always been people of faith who have at least understood that women have the right to do their own family planning.”
Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson, says that misconceptions about the relationship between religion and abortion only increase the need for vocal support from like-minded clergy.
“We’re very aware that a very few younger women, who are more likely to be in their childbearing ages and therefore need an abortion, never heard a positive Christian message — a pro-sex, pro-woman, pro–birth control, pro-abortion message that comes out of faith and is not in spite of our faith,” she said.
With the recent passing of the American Health Care Act by the House of Representatives, access to safe and legal abortion faces even more challenges. Schaper added that because the “unplanned presidency” of Donald Trump is also introducing new threats to reproductive justice, the event holds a new urgency, and that clergy are considering revitalizing the CCS.
“It’s not just a medical or economic issue,” she said. “It goes to the heart of whether you think you’re good enough to make choices, and that theology of whether you’re good enough to make choices is the theology of Judson and progressive Christianity.”
Progressive Christianity is exactly what is practiced and preached at Judson, which has a rich history of activism, advocating for social justice on health care, immigrant rights, the LGBTQ community, and more.
“My faith really loves it when women have more power rather than less,” Schaper said. “I just don’t think it’s Christian to deny women power and authority. And I think Jesus was all about women having more agency and being moral choice makers as much as men. I don’t think there’s anything in Jesus that was anti-woman.”
“Stand by Me” will feature a reading of Winter Miller’s abortion-themed play Spare Rib and a service led by guest preacher Dr. Willie Parker, an OB-GYN and author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. The weekend also includes the opening of the art show “Bodies Up for Grabs: Reproduction, Politics and the Sacred” and a keynote address by Monica Simpson, executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.