The morning after the appallingly restrictive antiabortion legislation passed in Alabama last week, my friends in ministry and I — working in parishes of all sorts across the country, on college campuses and in nonprofits — wondered whether we might have to, finally and perhaps belatedly, officially resurrect the Clergy Consultation Service.
The CCS was the underground network of Christian and Jewish clergy who assisted women in need of abortion and other reproductive health services in the days before Roe v. Wade. In my corner of the religious world — I’m a United Methodist pastor serving in the United Church of Christ outside Chicago — clergy who are advocates of abortion rights are the norm, and we have been for a long time. We’re not unlike the rest of the American public, of which 58 percent say that abortion should be legal in all or most instances, or our white mainline Protestant communities, which are 67 percent pro-choice.
That support for reproductive health and rights is neither knee-jerk nor shallow and comes from wrestling with texts and traditions, social and medical science, and the complexity inherent in human life. It is strengthened by being trusted and graced with the stories of the people for whom we are called to care: of sexual violence and contraceptive failure; of devastating diagnoses for wanted children and health complications for mothers; of trauma and poverty.
Yet, despite the widespread support for safe and legal abortion, very few congregations or members of the clergy are likely to speak out about reproductive justice. Roughly 80 percent of mainline clergy have no problem regularly speaking on issues of social justice, such as hunger and poverty, and more than two-thirds address issues of marriage and family often. But a measly 26 percent report addressing abortion or capital punishment.
A complicated history suggests reasons for the widespread support for abortion rights and the ongoing reticence to speak regularly and publicly about such issues. But that reticence has allowed national conversation about abortion to be taken over by an overly simplified narrative forwarded by Catholic and white evangelical churches. Instead of a complicated pastoral issue requiring nuance, empathy and, above all, the trusting of women to make choices for their own bodies, abortion (even from the moment of conception) is falsely equated with infanticide. Legislation in states across the nation has become increasingly punitive for doctors and for women in need of care, a new direction in the antiabortion movement that had, for years, focused on simply making abortions nearly impossible to get.
Gillian Frank, a scholar at work on a book about the Clergy Consultation Service, argues that clergy had provided comfort and moral authority in the course of their pastoral ministry for generations; that meant they had often been approached by women and families in the midst of reproductive crises. Though abortion had been criminalized for more than half our country’s history, until the 1950s, the procedure was not difficult to get, or even unduly dangerous. More-restrictive laws came into effect then, rendering abortions more dangerous. Clergy in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw firsthand the effects of those legislative shifts and were part of a brief moment of broad consensus that antiabortion laws were leading to a public health crisis. Reform was desperately needed, and consensus was so broad as to include liberal Jews, Unitarians and even Southern Baptists. The consistent and vocal position of the Catholic Church was, then, an outlier, rather than the rule.
Between 1967 and 1973, about 2,000 clergy members, men and women, formed a network that stretched across the United States and abroad, providing information, support and funding for women to procure an estimated quarter to a half-million abortions. Growing out of their pastoral practice, the work of the members of the Clergy Consultation Service also manifested a passion for personal autonomy, privacy and human dignity. These decisions, for the clergy of the CCS, were understood to be intensely personal, and best left up to a woman and whatever opinions and authorities she sought.
Frank notes that, in the years after New York legalized abortion in 1970, some for-profit abortion providers shifted the conversation from a public health crisis to a crass and commercial endeavor, with “practically pornographic” billboards that made many, even those staunchly in favor of protecting reproductive rights, uncomfortable. Today, that image of abortion procedures as available, cheap and “on demand” persists, though it is extremely difficult, if not practically impossible, to access an abortion or a host of other reproductive health-care services (even tubal ligation or IUDS) in many states.
With the dramatic rise and spread of conservatism in the late 1970s and 1980s — the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Falwell’s “moral majority” and the election of Ronald Reagan — “Christian” came to be equated with opposition to abortion, homosexuality, premarital sex and government protection of women’s rights or support of those living in poverty. “We maintain public support,” says the Rev. Katey Zeh, interim executive director of one of the successor organizations to CCS, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), “but we’ve lost the public narrative.”
This loss is twofold. First, ever since the Roe decision, other groups have been working tirelessly to get it overturned. Every election is about seats in legislatures, limiting access at the state level, and “the race to the Supreme Court,” Zeh says. The RCRC, along with other independent clinics and organizations, continues in the mode of its parent shadow network, advocating and protesting and otherwise engaging the legislative process, publishing op-eds, and training clergy and other community leaders to provide information, resources and compassionate care to those in need of reproductive health care and justice.
But pro-choice clergy also struggle to find the proper context to have conversations about abortion outside the closed doors of pastoral visits. Sermons don’t always provide the space for the kind of conversation such a personal topic often requires, and small group discussions by nature reach only a percentage of the congregation. “My youth group talks about abortion,” one United Methodist clergywoman told me, “but my adults, not so much.”
“I made a casual reference to a woman’s choice in a sermon once,” a young Lutheran clergywoman in Wisconsin told me, “and I got more criticism than in any other situation.” Zeh reported that, in 2017, the Revs. Christine and Dennis Wiley participated in a blessing of abortion clinics put on by RCRC in the D.C. metro area. The following Sunday, protesters stormed their church, disrupting Sunday school and intimidating children and other worshipers. Those who have been around this conversation awhile recall that George Tiller, a faithful provider of late-term abortions, was murdered while serving as an usher during a Sunday morning service of his Wichita congregation Redeemer Lutheran.
Frank notes that clergy also do not carry the cultural privilege or moral authority that we once did (and, often, for good reason). I can attest that the shift renders it hard to do what is right and good, to think creatively and speak the truth. It’s not easy to correct misleading rhetoric and halt the spread of partisan lies when you’re afraid for your livelihood and life.
The structural shift accompanying the rise of Christian political fundamentalism in the 1980s and 1990s reflected the divided understanding of authority: Conservative churches would happily tell you what to believe and how to vote, and liberal ones would never tell you anything happily, afraid that you might argue.
But a new generation of religious leaders has begun to take up the mantle and holy calling of serving the 1 in 4 women who will have an abortion in their lifetimes, of teaching comprehensive sex education in light of a loving God who desires human flourishing, or advocating and organizing and teaching and writing for reproductive justice. We are already doing this — testifying before Congress and holding hands at clinic bedsides. There is too much at stake for us to continue in the long-held practice of serving as “the quiet hand of God.”
It takes all of five minutes in a pulpit to learn that you can’t please everyone. The mainline church, in times of declining resources, members and influence, has spent the past 40 years in the shadows of evangelical megachurches, forgetting this truth. Out of an unholy confluence of fear, conflict avoidance and attempts to copy corporate management culture, many of us have failed to be bold in preaching the Gospel. We never had time for that; we have even less time now. Now is the time to give hope to the downtrodden, critique the powers and principalities, tell the truth, face arrest and, if it comes to it, face mortal danger. It is especially time to use whatever privilege we have on behalf of those with less. It’s what Jesus would do.