May 4, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
A religious movement, arising from conditions that were killing women, helped give birth to Roe
A post-Roe America will need a revival.
Let’s assume for now that the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, leaked Monday to Politico, won’t change between now and June. Let’s assume that the court strikes down Roe. If that’s the case – and I don’t see why it would not be – people will wonder what a post-Roe America will look like.
History can help.
A particular history.
Gillian Frank is a historian of American sexuality and religion. He’s the co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast. His forthcoming book tells the story of American religious leaders helping women get abortions.
“A theology emerged that said personal responsibility over one’s reproduction was what we might call a sacrament. That’s not quite the right word, but it was a moral and ethical choice and responsibility that shouldn’t be legislated by the state vis-a-vis Catholic ideas.”Gillian Frank.
Contrary to conservative belief, religious people were not opposed to abortion before 1973. Opinions were mixed. Catholics were against it. Nothing unusual there. Evangelical Protestants were indifferent. That might be surprising. More surprising, though, is the decades’ long religious movement advocating for the repeal of state abortion laws.
Because “these ministers, these rabbis, these priests, these nuns” were on the frontlines of slow-moving medical disaster in which desperate women did desperate things, resulting in mutilation or death.
“They witnessed the mass loss of life, the mutilation, the sterilizations that were inadvertent results of botched abortions – they could see the stress of women and the fear of women who were sent away because they had unwanted pregnancies,” Professor Frank said.
This religious movement was part of the social context from which arose a Supreme Court ruling that privacy is a constitutional right.
A religious movement helped give birth to Roe.
“They would say abortion – this is Methodist speaking – is ‘a tragic conflict of life with life.’ A woman needs to come to this responsibly and carefully. But she must be the moral arbiter of her own body.”
This history might be surprising given the narrative around abortion is so often dominated by the anti-abortion view. Those who oppose abortion stand with God. Those who stand with abortion oppose God.
This framing falls apart once it’s clear that religious people – those who stand with God – advocated for the repeal of abortion laws for religious reasons. Indeed, they asked themselves, “What morality does law have if it’s encouraging law breaking and disrespect for the law?”
I can’t see into the future any more than you can. But if Roe goes down, the demand for abortion services will likely outpace supply in short order. Desperate women will do desperate things. These are the conditions, historically speaking, for a new religious movement.
I’m hoping you can explain to normal people what was going on before Roe among religious people and what might happen post-Roe.
In the decades after World War II, the 1940s and 1950s, abortion restrictions tightened. Before World War II, though it was illegal, hospitals and independent abortion providers were local resources.
People could access abortions.
Those numbers dropped dramatically as states crusaded against abortion services. Demand didn’t decrease. Supply did.
Filling in this gap were predatory providers, “Backstreet butchers.” People would seek them out and end up injured, mutilated or dead. People trying to get abortions through the front door of hospitals often, or often enough, ended up coming in through the ER.
This was the situation clergy were witnessing.
Clery were witnessing people in their congregations come to them, desperate for abortions. They would see their own loved ones become unwillingly pregnant. They would seek out abortions for them.
I’m talking about Catholic priests, rabbis and mainline ministers.
Demand never went away.
Many people in those decades still attended services. They were still active in their congregations. They saw priests, ministers and rabbis as sources of counseling and support. They could turn to them for help.
These ministers, these rabbis, these priests, these nuns – they were on the frontlines witnessing an unfolding medical tragedy that was completely unnecessary. They witnessed the mass loss of life, the mutilation, the sterilizations that were inadvertent results of botched abortions – they could see the stress of women and the fear of women who were sent away because they had unwanted pregnancies.
This was the tapestry of American reproductive life.
These were not just young, unmarried, precocious people.
These were married mothers of multiple children who just couldn’t have a 10th child or a fourth child or even a second child.
In the wake of what became apparent – that hundreds of thousands of people were seeking illegal abortions each year – clergy, along with other professionals, physicians and lawyers, started to issue statements calling for a reevaluation of state abortion laws.
Early ones started in 1959. They grew over time. The usual suspects were reformed Jews and Unitarians, but you would find this thinking in the leadership of just about every denomination, except for Catholics.
Even Southern Baptists supported abortion reform before Roe.
There was a widespread consensus that abortion restrictions were creating a medical conditions for killing people. Whenever laws were proposed to reform or repeal abortion – whether in California or New York or Kansas or Iowa – dozens of states floated this legislation.
Some passed. Many did not.
“They diagnosed that as a ‘sacralization of the fetus’ – that it was a way of turning women effectively into containers and rendering them into second-class citizens. They were aware of this dynamic at the time. And they wanted to push back on this idea that women’s needs needed to be subordinate to fetal life.”Gillian Frank.
What you would see, however, was not just religious voices, usually from the Catholic Church and their leaders, saying no to abortion.
You would see an inter- and intra-religious debate.
Every time you saw a bishop or priest adhering to the party line, saying abortion is murder, you would see rabbis and ministers saying reproductive choice is important. It is vital. Our faith supports it.
We want repeal or reform.
We want abortion to be a matter of private conscience.
But you would also have – and this is important to the story – Catholic priests and Catholic nuns quietly supporting abortion seekers. You would have lay Catholics seeking abortions in huge numbers.
So there was a disjunct between church leadership and church laity. It’s important to emphasize. It was an inter- and intra-religious debate.
When you looked around on the eve of Roe (1973), the landscape of religion and abortion was an overwhelming consensus that the law as it stood restricting abortion was immoral. It was unconscionable.
It was criminalizing private and intimate behaviors that should be a choice between a pregnant person and their physician.
That was the consensus.
That was the norm.
How did they think about abortion theologically? You mentioned “private conscience.” Can you explain that?
It varied from denomination to denomination.
Jews would have a very different theology than, say, Protestants. Rabbis, particularly from reform congregations, argued that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus – that a fetus is not considered an ensouled human being until after it’s born.
They also understood health broadly, not only trying to preserve the physical life, but the overall social, economic and emotional life as well. They said that needs to take priority. Jewish theology was clear about the social and medical need for abortion. Abortion was not murder.
But you also had groups like the National Council of Churches. You had organs like the Christian Century. You had various groups coming to a similar conclusion – that we do not know precisely when life begins but we know there is, up to a point, a potential life, not an actual life.
They would say abortion – this is Methodist speaking – is “a tragic conflict of life with life.” A woman needs to come to this responsibly and carefully. But she must be the moral arbiter of her own body.
A theology emerged that said personal responsibility over one’s reproduction was what we might call a sacrament. That’s not quite the right word, but it was a moral and ethical choice and responsibility that shouldn’t be legislated by the state vis-a-vis Catholic ideas.
It should be seated with individuals and their families.
The concurrence was that the fetus was a potential life but not an ensouled human. That was Catholic theology at work. But a fetus was not a child. It’s a fetus. The priority needed to be the already born.
They had a phrase arising from religious spheres around Planned Parenthood: “Each child should be wanted. Each child should be loved.”
The idea was that it’s immoral to bring unwanted children into the world. The moral and responsible choice was a wanted and loved child.
They looked around and saw an epidemic of child abuse, of poverty, of neglect and they asked themselves: “What kind of life are we bringing people into if we are forcing people to give birth against their will?”
Did they believe abortion laws were forcing people to give birth?
They framed these laws as sexist, patriarchal, as punitive of women, as compulsory, as originating from archaic and bad theology.
They saw them as interfering with personal freedom, as violating religious freedom. These were all arguments they made.
To what degree was this broad consensus anti-Catholic?
I don’t think it was anti-Catholic, per se.
The question was: “What is the separation of church and state, and the relation of theological belief and civil law?” The answer: “We do not want a single church to impose their doctrine upon our congregants.”
That’s not anti-Catholic.
That’s creating freedom of religion as freedom from religion.
How would this consensus see the current elevation of the fetus to the point where it’s above even the interests of the mother?
They had terminology for that. They diagnosed that as a “sacralization of the fetus” – that it was a way of turning women effectively into containers and rendering them into second-class citizens. They were aware of this dynamic at the time. And they wanted to push back on this idea that women’s needs needed to be subordinate to fetal life.
They argued the opposite. The argument among these religious leaders was that in deeming the fetus to be a child – and calling abortion murder – they were criminalizing women’s behavior.
Did they see abortion laws themselves as irresponsible?
They saw them as creating a medical health crisis.
And they asked themselves, “What morality does law have if it’s encouraging law breaking and disrespect for the law?
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.