Reverend Howard Moody died this week, a Texan-turned-New Yorker who helped thousands of women obtain safe abortions before Roe v. Wade. I have long known about the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion Reverend Moody co-founded, but I still marvel at its success.
Think of it: the year is 1967. Abortion is still illegal in New York State (and everywhere else in the United States) The word “abortion” is only whispered in secret—never even said on the radio or TV. Then a group of ministers and rabbis announce in a press conference that they are establishing the “Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion,” that they will talk to pregnant women about abortion and tell them where to go if they wish to have an abortion. And for three years they did exactly that—no one was arrested, no government agency tried to close them down—right up to the legalization of abortion in New York State.
I had the privilege of meeting Reverend Moody in the early 2000s. The organization that I lead, Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health (PRCH), had just put out a documentary called Voices of Choice, and Reverend Moody was one of the subjects talking about abortion before Roe. Then and several times over the years, I was able to thank him in person for his incredible work on behalf of women. Reverend Moody never failed to be warm and gracious, with a twinkle in his eye—I’ve always felt that he, too, was still bemused by what he and the Clergy Consultation Service were able to pull off.
The response to the service revealed a need much larger than Reverend Moody and the other clergy had ever imagined. When we interviewed him in 2001 for our film, he estimated that, at the service’s top strength, he and twenty-five colleagues counseled more than a thousand women each week. He noted that they “… came from all over the country … just to get the information [about the abortion procedure]. Not to get an abortion, just to get the information. They came by plane and train, and bus, and car, and we were deluged.”
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But what had compelled him to take up this cause in the first place, risking his livelihood, his position in the church?
“[T]he situation at that time was just—it was horrible. What women had to go through. You know, a phone call, meet in a parking lot in Patterson, New Jersey at 10:00 at night, take them in a car to somewhere they didn’t know where. It was the most humiliating, frightening prospect for women that you can imagine.”
For him, the injuries and deaths caused by botched illegal abortions were unconscionable. He believed that women should not have to put themselves in physical or emotional jeopardy because they want to end their pregnancies: “Women are enslaved by not having reproductive freedom.” He was determined to treat pregnant women as independent, thoughtful human beings who knew their own minds.
His compassion for women in these circumstances reminds me of PRCH’s founder, Dr. Seymour (Cy) Romney. Both responded to women’s suffering before Roe in extraordinary ways—Reverend Moody started a national movement to guide women to safety, and Cy started a national organization to ensure we never have to go back to those days.
When the clergy agreed to help women have safe abortions, they knew they needed first to learn what it was like for women “to attempt to get an abortion in that time. We talked to women who had been through it. What did they need at that point? What would have been helpful to them? And of course, most important was a doctor they knew was a good doctor and was safe and secure …”.
They devised a system for checking out doctors before sending women to them. The secretary at Reverend Moody’s church, Arlene Carmen, would pretend to be pregnant and go to a doctor’s office. She “would observe the cleanliness, observe the people who were there. Then when she’s up on the table and her legs are in the stirrup, she’d then tell him what she was about.” The evaluation didn’t end there. Reverend Moody and the other clergy followed up, checking in on the women they referred to make sure they were alright emotionally and physically and determine if the doctors had treated them well. Violators were removed from their list.
I am moved still by the service’s methods. Reverend Moody and his colleagues didn’t deal with this issue in a cursory fashion. They went deep into the experience of women.
Reverend Moody and his colleagues made rules for themselves, too, forbidding counselors from showing “any judgment” about a woman’s reasons for needing an abortion. The reverend explained, “[E]verybody was making judgments about women who had abortions. They were criminals. … [W]e were not to be judgmental … we were to help them go through this and be with them through the process.”
I love that: “[W]e were not to be judgmental.” They were way ahead of their time. Forty-five years after Reverend Moody started the Clergy Consultation Service, and almost 40 years after Roe, it is a lesson this country still needs to learn.