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50 Years Ago, A Network Of Clergy Helped Women Seeking Abortion

May 19, 2017
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Before the Roe versus Wade decision legalized abortion nationwide in 1973, many women still managed to get the procedure. But getting an illegal abortion from an inexperienced medical provider came with a lot of risk. In some cases, women found help from what might seem like an unlikely source - a network of religious leaders. That group formed 50 years ago this month. Clergy are gathering in New York City this weekend to mark that occasion. NPR's Sarah McCammon brings us their story.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: As a 19-year-old college student, Loey Powell says there were a lot of things she didn't understand.

LOEY POWELL: I was not familiar with the concept of acquaintance rape at that time.

MCCAMMON: It was 1970, and Powell was beginning her sophomore year at Oberlin College in Ohio when she found herself pregnant after an unwanted sexual encounter. Abortion was illegal in most of the country, but Powell says someone referred her to a local minister for advice.

POWELL: And to be with someone who was non-judgmental, who was not making assumptions either about the circumstances of how I got pregnant or what the consequences are of that situation, it was very positive for me to go through that.

MCCAMMON: Powell says she was clear about one thing. She didn't want to be pregnant. So the minister helped her find a doctor in New York where abortion had just become legal. He was part of a network known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. The group of more than 1,000 mostly Protestant pastors as well as some priests and rabbis formed in 1967 and helped thousands of women seeking abortions in the pre-Roe era. One of the founding members, United Methodist minister Finley Schaef, says he'll never forget the first woman who came to him seeking help for her teenage daughter who was pregnant.

FINLEY SCHAEF: I couldn't help her. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know of any physicians that could perform an abortion. I didn't know where to turn.

MCCAMMON: Now 86, Schaef says he was able to help other women through the clergy network. In the early years, the group would send women to Europe or Puerto Rico if they could afford it or to trusted doctors in the U.S. who'd secretly perform illegal abortions. A lot was changing for women at the time, including women in ministry.

BARBARA GERLACH: This was a picture of me at 25...

MCCAMMON: Aw.

GERLACH: ...When I went into - I was ordained.

MCCAMMON: Barbara Gerlach entered seminary in 1968. By the time she became a minister in the United Church of Christ, she could send women to New York for legal abortions. She says many women appreciated the chance to talk through their decision with a religious leader.

GERLACH: If they were counseling someone, that gave a certain kind of respectability to the decision. Where there was so much stigma and shame and secrecy attached, it also gave dignity to the women who were coming for counseling.

MCCAMMON: As for Loey Powell, the college student in Ohio, she later went on to become a minister herself and also worked as a counselor at a women's clinic after abortion was legalized nationwide.

POWELL: This is complicated. This is not an easy situation. There are reasons why we need to support the decision that women come to that we don't have one religious view, one theological perspective on the issue of abortion.

MCCAMMON: Much of the work of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion was illegal at the time, but as members prepare to reunite this weekend, many say they're proud that they followed their conscience. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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