Criminal: The Procedure

Jul 7, 2017

Abortion has been legal in the United State for almost 45 years, but before it was, seeking an abortion was very dangerous. This week's Criminal podcast tells the story of a covert network of clergy who organized to help women get illegal abortions in the late 1960s. 

Abortion has now been legal for so long that many don't know as much about what it was like for women who had unwanted pregnancies before Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, but for many years before, it was illegal for a woman to get an abortion.

Connecticut first criminalized abortion in 1821, and other states followed. Many women, married or not, found themselves in situations where they wanted to abort a pregnancy.

Plans had to be made in secret. Abortion providers and women would meet undercover. Reverend Barbara Gerlach told Judge about a friend who got an abortion in New York City.

"First of all she had to have a password to get into the place where the abortion was going to happen. She was met by a man with a mask on so she couldn’t even see the face of the man who was providing the abortion and was sent off with nothing," Gerlach said. "There was fear, there was shame, there was stigma, and it was just very dangerous."

Arranging an abortion was so difficult that many women sought help. That's where the Clergy Consultation Service came in.

Clergy often heard from women who would confess that they had unwanted pregnancies. Women would tell ministers, priests and rabbis things they might not tell anyone else, because they had a confidential relationship.

Eventually, clergy were hearing from so many women about unwanted pregnancies and unsafe self-induced abortions, that they started to organize. In 1967, a group of clergy launched the Clergy Consultation Service. They would refer women to doctors across state lines, so it would be harder to prosecute if they were caught.

They believed that they were helping women in distress, and that they were called to do that. Rabbi Harold L. Kudan of Illinois explained his own motivation.

"There is this holiness code and it talks about how we should act in terms of others a stranger, the widow the orphan, one of the most famous as love your neighbor as yourself," said Kudan. "But I thought, today that is not the most important sentence, the most important sentence is: 'do not stand idly by the blood of your brother.' We cannot be idle when our neighbor is in distress."

Gillian Frank is a historian of sexuality and religion at Princeton University who has studied the consultation service. Frank says a number of clergy and congregations began to see abortion as a difficult choice women should make for themselves.

"They believed that not offering this option would hurt women. They believed we need to prioritize the people who are already living. And that there are higher laws that need to be followed because the consequences will be tragic for women and their families otherwise," explained Frank.

Although there were a few incidents of clergy being caught for giving counsel to women seeking abortions, largely, the network got away with it. They destroyed their records to avoid evidence. And ultimately, when individuals were caught, the public didn't want to jail clergy.

It is now believed that the Clergy Consultation Service helped almost a quarter of a million women get safe abortions. But if you ask the members now, they feel that they were doing something very simple out of compassion.

The Criminal podcast is recorded at North Carolina Public Radio WUNC.