The American clergy who helped women get abortions before Roe v Wade
In the half-decade before abortion became legal in the US with the passing of Roe v Wade in 1973, a network of religious leaders helped thousands of women in crisis to travel abroad to end unwanted pregnancies
Known as the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, this interfaith group of Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, and dissenting Catholic nuns and priests spanning more than 30 US states helped tens of thousands of abortion-seekers to safely move within and across national borders to obtain reliable reproductive health care. Many of these women travelled to London, dubbed “the abortion capital of the world”, where women could privately obtain abortions safely, legally, and with minimal ‘red tape’.
Here, Gillian Frank, a historian of abortion, picks up the story…
In December 1969, a woman from Oak Park, Illinois, a town west of Chicago, handwrote a letter to Reverend Spencer Parsons about her overseas abortion. “My trip to London was indeed a pleasant one,” she stated. “Dr. Sopher is an excellent doctor who took a personal interest in me as a patient. He put me at ease immediately. And as long as I was in London I took a few days to tour that lovely city.”
Parsons (pictured above) was an American Baptist minister and the Dean of the Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. He also led the Chicago branch of the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS), an interfaith group dedicated to helping women obtain elective – and often illegal – abortions before Roe v Wade, the landmark United States Supreme Court decision in 1973 which recognised a federal constitutional right to choose abortion.
This letter to Parsons, like so many other letters written from abortion-seekers to religious leaders of that era, highlights two aspects of terminating a pregnancy before Roe v Wade: first, abortion-seekers had to travel to get healthcare because there was a scarcity of skilled physicians in the United States willing to risk their careers by breaking the law and offering elective abortions. Second, religious forces powerfully shaped abortion travel networks.
The 1950s and 1960s saw mainline Protestant and Jewish leaders become increasingly alarmed by the public-health catastrophe caused by stringent abortion restrictions. In January 1961, The Christian Century magazine editorialised against the “archaic state and church laws” that “drive nearly a million American mothers each year to abortion mills where approximately 5,000 of them die at the hands of bungling quacks and filthy midwives.”
Newspapers regularly shared disturbing statistics about hundreds of thousands of illegal abortions taking place annually. Reports also signalled the horrendous human costs of criminalising abortion in the United States: hospital wards filled with septic women; needless deaths from botched illegal procedures; and those physically or emotionally traumatised from clandestine abortions or sleazy providers.
For many clergy, these stories about abortion-seekers were not abstract tales about other people’s mothers, sisters, or daughters. They reflected what they were hearing first-hand from members of their communities, their congregations, their close friends, or sometimes even their own spouses or family members.
American clergy who tried to help women secure abortions were also keenly aware of the institutional roadblocks at hospitals. In accordance with state laws, doctors could only perform legal abortions in cases where the health of the mother was jeopardised. Whether “health” was narrowly interpreted to mean a woman’s life, or expansively applied to include her physical or mental health, depended upon the whims of the committees of doctors who adjudicated each abortion request. For the most part, these abortion committees acted as deterrents – at once denying medical care to most abortion-seekers while also stymying more sympathetic doctors who might bend the law. In short, strict anti-abortion laws and stringent hospital regulations prevented most abortion-seekers from seeking legal medical services.
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By the mid-1960s, more and more Protestant and Jewish clergy believed that women had a right to access safe abortions for any reason. They viewed abortion rights as integral to women’s quest for social equality and personal freedom. James Pike, an Episcopal bishop in California, put it this way in January 1966: “The decision must in the final analysis be with the woman concerned. No one else can make it for her or take it from her, if she is to be a genuinely free moral agent.”
Clergy like Pike put their faith into action: they organised into groups that acted as guides to help tens of thousands of abortion-seekers safely move within and across national borders to obtain reliable reproductive health care. Most did so through the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, an interfaith group spanning three-dozen-or-so US states and numbering approximately 2,000 liberal Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis, dissenting Catholic nuns and priests, and laity from a spectrum of denominations. During the heyday of its existence from 1967 until 1973, the CCS helped abortion-seekers to navigate a provider network that spanned North America, England, and Japan.
“The abortion capital of the world”
When Britain legalised abortion in 1967 and made the service available to non-residents in April 1968, London became an international abortion destination.
Britain’s two-tiered healthcare system, which provided public healthcare to citizens and private healthcare to both citizens and non-citizens alike, enabled foreigners to access British medical resources. The new legislation allowed for terminations of pregnancies before the 24th week for an array of reasons, including protecting the “physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”. The law had minimal notification requirements; doctors were not required to inform the spouses of married women or the parents of minors about abortion requests before the 18th week of pregnancy. Women, in other words, for the most part could privately obtain abortions with minimal ‘red tape’.
Within days of the new law’s enactment, women from North America began travelling to London for private healthcare. The devaluation of the British pound made the costs of staying in England reasonably cheap for North American abortion-seekers. At the same time, the legality of abortion, the professionalism of providers, and the lack of residency requirement, made “crossing the Atlantic a better proposition for American women” than the costly, clandestine, and frequently dangerous illegal abortion market in the United States, wrote Garry Lloyd in The Times (London) on 30 December 1968.
Americans joined abortion-seekers from Europe and British women from areas of the UK that had limited abortion services. And as dozens of private medical facilities opened up in London to serve domestic and international clientele, non-profit and for-profit abortion services alike organised medical appointments, travel, and accommodation for international abortion seekers. Soon, the AP news service described London as “the abortion capital of the world” and dubbed the act of seeking an abortion there as “The London Solution”.
Non-profit abortion services like the CCS would pre-research the logistics so that women could easily make their own arrangements for flights, hotels, and medical services. They would secure discounts for impoverished abortion-seekers and sometimes get medical fees waived altogether. On the other hand, for-profit abortion services functioned like a travel agency and charged a referral/service fee, which ranged from modest to exorbitant.
Protestant and Jewish religious leaders in the United States, who had been steering women to safe abortion providers for years, quickly tapped into the expanding trans-Atlantic abortion network. The Clergy Consultation Service, for example, carefully vetted British abortion providers for quality of medical care and overall hospitality. After experiencing difficulties with other providers, they directed hundreds of their clients to Dr David Sopher, a Bombay-born physician who had earned patients’ regard for his attentive bedside manner and his slow and careful methods.
Sopher began providing abortions, not for money, which he later described as a fringe benefit, but in response to patients’ needs. “If something needed to be done and could be done safely and legally, then I would do it,” he stated about abortion. Whereas some British physicians openly bragged about charging high fees to international travellers, Sopher maintained a fixed rate: $385 up to the 13th week of pregnancy; $425 up to the 16th week; $525 up to the 19th week; and $725 up to the 24th week. For patients who could not afford to pay, he would provide his services for free.
Soon, women counselled by clergy from across the United States began flying to London to get abortions at the Lady Margaret Nursing Home, an old English mansion where Dr Sopher worked. But getting abortion-seekers from the United States to London – especially those who were inexperienced travellers – was not straightforward. In an era when information was all analogue, abortion travel was logistically demanding. Consequently, an essential aspect of the CCS’s pastoral care was helping travellers navigate potential pitfalls.
To that end, the CCS and other clergy taught women how to get a passport and a travel visa, where to purchase airline tickets, where to pick up luggage upon arrival, which flights to take, where to exchange money (and at what rate), and where to stay overnight. They also advised women on what to say to, and how to pay, the doctor; what to expect during the procedure; and how to care for themselves before, during and after their abortions. These tips oriented inexperienced travellers to English culture, de-stigmatised and explained medical procedures, and lessened their clients’ stress and fears.
But – perhaps most importantly – this guidance saved women precious time at a moment when acquiring basic information about getting an abortion and travelling to get one could take weeks or even months to ascertain. With this medical procedure, time was of the essence – so practical advice was a game-changer.
The CCS’s advice to abortion-seekers often emulated the style of American travel guidebooks, offering tips to make the trip comfortable while conveying American assumptions about food and hospitality. The CCS’s multipage guides to London, for example, repeatedly griped about British food even as they suggested certain restaurants to travellers. The Lansing Michigan CCS version of this book bluntly explained, “Salads and coffee are to be avoided in England as they are usually poor” and described Wimpy Bars as “an English version of the Big Boy, but worse.” The same guide also bitterly complained about British heating practices and advised packing extra sweaters. These culinary and clothing tips, however, were hardly the most important advice clergy offered abortion-seekers – the real danger was the difficult men they might encounter while travelling.
Clergy worried about male border officials humiliating women with probing or insensitive questions. To that end, clergy supplied ready-made answers to appease “a blunt or insensitive official” in the UK who might crudely enquire about their unwanted pregnancies and motivations for abortions. They advised travellers to simply tell customs officials that they were travelling to England “‘for emergency’ (personal reasons/family gathering), ‘limited’ vacation time abroad, study leave, or any other response which adequately indicates the need for haste.”
Listen: Mary Fissell talks about women’s reproductive health in early modern Europe and America on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. She discusses how women dealt with their periods, theories about fertility, ideas about the female body and the childbirth process
But border officials were only the first obstacle. CCS clergy emphasised that women had to be especially cautious around London’s taxis drivers. Numerous women had reported encounters with cabbies who received commissions for diverting patients to rival abortion providers. Dr David Sopher wrote to American clergy and warned of how taxi drivers operated. One cab driver, he stated, told a patient that Sopher’s clinic had been burnt down. In another instance, when Sopher’s staff confronted a taxi driver who was attempting to redirect a patient, the cabbie reportedly told them that money motivated his dishonesty: “We too have to make a living and we get no joy from you,” he reportedly exclaimed.
Dr Sopher’s warning prompted the Los Angeles CCS to alert abortion-travellers about “Taxicab banditry” and for the New York City CCS to “warn women in the counseling session against believing any cab driver who claimed that Dr. Sopher was on vacation, arrested, or dead.” The big takeaway, clergy explained to travellers, was: “Do not talk to taxi drivers about the purpose of your trip.” The British press also reported this malfeasance, prompting the Secretary for Social Services to pursue the matter during an a 1969 inquiry into the “mass immigration” of abortion-seekers from around the world.
Most abortion-seekers were able to easily surmount these obstacles because of clergy guidance. On a practical level, women guided by clergy to Dr Sopher and other providers came prepared for what awaited them. “I must say,” Dr Sopher recalled, “that the ones who came to me from the Clergy Consultation Service, they were all very confident, never had the slightest doubt about what was going to go on, they were briefed … knew the background, knew the safety factors and so on. They were much easier to deal with than anybody who just came off the street, so to speak.”
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One discerning traveller described the medical treatment there as excellent. But, she commented, the Lady Margaret was “furnished with what I would call Good Will rejects”. For this grateful patient, the furniture was the greatest of her complaints. She, like so many others who had been advised by clergy, walked into Dr Sopher’s office without incident to receive world-class medical treatment.
Through clergy counselling, abortion-seekers arrived in London buoyed by expectations of competent and compassionate medical treatment. This, at a moment when women were being denied abortions for unwanted pregnancies at home. As such, finding professional and compassionate care abroad left an impression. “I would have never been able to understand why a young, healthy, married woman, with two children would not want to carry and have a third child once the pregnancy occurred; especially if there is love and understanding in such a home,” wrote one woman to a clergyman. “But it happened to me.” Like so many others, this woman had to travel at great cost and over several days to undergo a surgery that often took less than 15 minutes to perform.
As these women returned to their homes from London and the many other far-flung places they travelled to in need of reproductive healthcare, many began to ask a vital question: why was it so difficult and so shameful to obtain an abortion at home when it was so comparatively easy to do so abroad?
Gillian Frank is a historian of abortion and has written extensively on life before Roe v Wade. He specialises in the overlapping histories of sexuality, gender, race, and religion. This academic year he will be an affiliate fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Culture, Society and Religion. Previously, Gillian was an ACLS Faculty Fellow at Stony Brook University, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for the Study of Religion, and a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Virginia.