When scholar Gillian Frank was working on his dissertation, he stumbled upon accounts of a group of clergy helping women cross state lines or international borders to get abortions before Roe v. Wade. He wondered, after seeing references to the Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies in Michigan, whether the group or others like it had operated elsewhere in the country.

That question became the guiding query of his career as a scholar who explores the intersections between religion, gender and sexuality. Frank, a fellow at Princeton’s Center for Culture, Society and Religion, has studied the organization generally known as the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) in 40 states, two Canadian provinces and the city of Tokyo, Japan.

These mostly Protestant and Jewish faith leaders created a referral service by which pregnant people could get information about vetted abortion providers from clergy. Serving as middlemen — and most were indeed male — they reduced the risks of navigating the confusing and sometimes dangerous abortion underworld.

Finding an abortion provider wasn’t easy; it often required outing a pregnancy to a social network in hopes that somebody knew somebody — and then hoping this somebody (maybe a moonlighting doctor, maybe a quack or a mafia-backed freelancer) could offer a secret and safe, if illegal, procedure that wouldn’t maim or kill.

As co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast, Frank is used to talking to audiences about intimate practices past and present. Now, in the wake of the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court case that overturned Roe and set off a cascade of abortion bans and restrictions across the country, Frank’s expertise has been in high demand.

He’s been on the speaking circuit nonstop since the ruling last summer, explaining that religious belief is not synonymous with anti-abortion sentiment, and he has a forthcoming book about the CCS, to be published by the University of North Carolina Press.

Frank recently talked with writer Cynthia Greenlee for Faith & Leadership about the Clergy Consultation story, how it started and what it means. The following is an edited transcript.

Cynthia Greenlee: What captured your imagination about this service?

Gillian Frank

Gillian Frank: It’s not just a Michigan story. It’s so much more. What I discovered in the archives was that this was an international reproductive rights movement, but also an international referral group. As I dug further into it, I discovered they opened up their own [post-Roe] abortion clinics and grew a bunch of other reproductive [health] groups around the country, including independent providers, large-scale abortion clinics and long-standing alliances or mergers with Planned Parenthood, through which Planned Parenthood transitioned to offering abortions.

The fingerprint of this group was everywhere: in legal cases, in the sort of theology of choice that took on a secular cast, in how we even think about abortion rights [now].

I was like, “Wow, what has been written about this?” What had been written was often hagiographies, very heroic, by folks who may appreciate religion but don’t have the understanding of the “whys” and “hows.” I began to think about doing a broader project, documenting both what they did and why they did it.

CG: I was surprised when I saw The New York Times article announcing their launch in 1967 — before Roe, which was in 1973. So why did they come out so publicly?

GF: Many of the clergy who signed on to that initial list had been doing abortion referral starting in the 1950s. Congregants were coming to them saying, “I need an abortion. Where do I go?” And many of them didn’t have the answers.

By the early ’60s, as the abortion rights movement was heating up, some of the original signers and members of that New York nucleus were already active around [the famous 1962 case of] Sherri Finkbine.

But most of them had also been thinking about contraceptive rights. Griswold v. Connecticut gets decided in ’65 [inferring a constitutional right to privacy within marriage, later used in Roe], after decades of battle.

New York tries to pass the most tepid reform legislation [in the 1960s], and it fails due to Catholic power. Catholics are basically saying, just as they had with contraception, that abortion is murder. They lent their institutional and media muscle to shaming abortion.

By the time we get to ’67, a number of denominations and major Christian publications (Jews were already there for a long time) effectively declare that the abortion law needs to be reformed, because it is putting women in danger; that it is about potential life, not actual life; and that it is creating a public health crisis, and [advocating for well-being] is a Christian duty.

Letter from 1970 announcing the formation of the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies
1970 letter from the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies records.

There are these activists [realizing that reform might take many years] who say we need to break the law, in the spirit of the civil rights movement and anti-war movement, in order to dramatize its injustice — but also to lend our moral authority to women.

CG: How do these like-minded clergy find each other?

GF: They find each other through their already existing divinity school and activist networks. Many of them knew each other through the civil rights or anti-war movements. Many of them were [linked] through denominational networks.

In 1960-61, the publication The Christian Century and other people called for further Christian study of the abortion issue.

The Rev. Howard Moody [of the progressive Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village] finds like-minded activists in New York. It’s mainline Protestants, a few Jews, many people who have been outspoken on these issues, or just fellow travelers coming to informational meetings and workshops. New York announces [the CCS launch].

And it goes, as we would now say, viral. It’s even printed up in Canada with “Need help? Call New York City for abortion. Call this number” as the headline.

Women abortion seekers from all over the country start calling the number, start coming to New York, flooding them. The people at Judson, which was the home base, say, “We’re getting all these people from Pennsylvania calling us. Who do I know in Pennsylvania who can organize a group? OK, we’re gonna call my friend in Philly.” That’s part one.

Part two: Clergy get reposted regularly. So a clergyman who was in New York City in the original group gets transferred to Colorado, starts a group there.

Then, with [the newspaper coverage], the other thing that happens is all these other clergy who had been doing quiet referrals for years say, “Oh, what are you doing? Can I get in on it? Can you come teach us how to do the same thing?”

So California is one of the next big ones, but then you see Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky. They were seed planting.

CG: Where did they find providers? How did they know whom to trust?

GF: Initially, they used the findings of [abortion rights champion] Larry Lader. They used [abortion activist] Patricia Maginnis’ list on the West Coast, her list at first. And then they were asking around, and women who were coming to help them would say, “You know, I heard about so-and-so.”

Each name they got, they went and vetted — each and every provider. They did repeated checks. But at the beginning, they were at the mercy of these providers, who were few and far between. So they’re looking to Puerto Rico; they’re looking to Mexico; they’re looking locally.

The prices were extravagant at first, upwards of $500. But then they start to realize that they can negotiate: “If we all refer in bulk, the providers love us because our counselees are already pre-vetted and informed about the procedure and are less afraid and know what to do and have the money ready and understand how to get there and know what password to use.”

The network was fragile at first, with arrests, surveillance, and also sketchy providers who needed to be replaced. When you’re doing evaluation based on people’s actual experiences and feedback, it’s not quite Yelp. But women were canaries in coal mines. The way to find out if someone is [awful] is you have to have a guinea pig, so they had these negative lists that they circulated: so-and-so is not a real doctor; this one made the person wait for three days; so-and-so tried to rape the person on the table. I mean, the horrors that they catalogued …

They really transformed the nature of abortion care, even before legalization stateside. They’re finding these providers, but they’re also transforming hospitals [which typically granted only a few abortions, based on health issues, and controlled access through bureaucratic “therapeutic abortion committees,” led by doctors]. City by city, state by state, they ask, “Can we influence doctors in our denominations, in our congregations, at the local hospital?” At the same time as they’re sending hundreds of thousands of people across state lines, they’re also basically trying to find ways to game the system.

CG: Can you talk about the actual risks for the clergy?

GF: It varied state by state. They argued that it was their right as clergy to offer religious counseling, and they argued that abortion counseling was religious counseling, so any communication therefore was privileged. In the privacy of these religious spaces, they were free to share this information carefully.

The countervailing force was that communications about abortions were illegal in many states. There were statutes on the books, deriving from the Comstock laws, saying that abortion counseling and referral carried equal fines to actually providing the abortion, in some places.

Police surveillance was a risk. Having abortion providers who were nonlicensed or somehow criminal was a risk. Aiding and abetting them was a risk.

[Law enforcement] actually raided a Chicago rabbi’s office and tried to arrest him and extradite him. This guy’s name was Max Ticktin. He was the head of [the University of Chicago] Hillel House in ’69. They also arrested the abortion provider.

There was such an outcry of clergy in both Michigan [where he was referring] and Illinois, and also a lot of pressure from local politicians, that mysteriously, the district attorney just happened to run out of funds to prosecute him, and also said, “Oh, you know what? He’s acting in the highest calling of his traditions.” It was always the providers that were most susceptible.

I’ve also written about an Ohio minister by the name of Robert Hare, who was sending women to a provider in Massachusetts. Massachusetts State Police were investigating him. They go raid the guy’s house; they find all these files and letters from Ohio. Why are all these Ohio women coming to Massachusetts? What sort of ring is this? They find the names of these women, and they start tracking them down. They interrogate them at their workplaces or in front of their parents.

CG: What do you say to people who believe the commonly held notion that to be a person of faith or clergy means to be anti-abortion?

GF: I always begin with, which religious group does a particular set of ideas come from? Once we’ve localized that, we can begin to trace where ideas come from.

Abortion has been a subject of inter- and intrareligious debate from the outset, a debate between religious groups and within religious groups. The strength of anti-abortion activists has been to convince you that there is no debate.

From there, we need to look at other theologies. Jews don’t believe that [the fetus] is an actual child that takes priority until after it is born; the mother’s life takes precedence. This idea that a fetus is a child is a theological position rather than a universally held religious belief.

CG: In that vein, what do you see in the contemporary post-Dobbs moment that is similar to or different from when the CCS operated?

GF: I’ll start with the different. We have, unlike in the pre-Roe moment, more than half a century’s worth of open theological discussion and affirmation of both contraception and abortion rights. We have long-standing networks of abortion providers who have been operating legally. And we have long-standing alliances between lawyers, clergy, physicians, activists of all stripes who are pro-choice or reproductive justice-oriented.

Today, unlike in the past, the movement is far more interracial, and far more multidenominational, because of the involvement of Muslims, Buddhists, others in these discussions. At the beginning, it was very much a Christian and Jewish movement, with some dissenting Catholics participating. And it was very white at first. Some Black clergy — for the most part, they were mainline Protestants who led denominations — shied away from it, even as African American women were active participants, both as abortion seekers or joining these groups in various voluntary capacities.

Unlike ’67, right now, half the states at least have legal abortion. Abortion travel within the United States is possible. Reputable clinics exist.

[In terms of] continuities, pro-choice clergy then and now continue to have to challenge a popular political narrative that says abortion is a sin and abortion is murder. Catholics, evangelicals and Mormons have dominated the conversation in the press, in popular memory, among politicians, among judges. And that has sutured this idea that it is a religious belief that abortion is immoral.

[It’s imperative] to make clear against the backdrop of pervasive religious illiteracy in this country, especially among those who report on it, that there are theologies of choice and reproductive justice, which are deeply rooted and long-standing. And so that is one of the major continuities: [the need] to convince politicians, the press and others that pro-choice theologies are not some sort of weird circus animal. They’re the norm.