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Lessons from Unlikely Radicals in the Fight for Reproductive Rights.

According to a Guttmacher Institute analysis of policy trends on abortion access in the United States, "[s]tates continued their assault on abortion in 2017, with 19 states adopting 63 new restrictions on abortion rights and access. That total is the largest number of abortion restrictions enacted in a year since 201 3." (1) And in 2018, Iowa governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected; though that measure was defeated, the U.S. Senate tried to pass a national measure to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. In a time of these escalating attacks on reproductive rights, it is helpful to look to the past for lessons in activism. To Offer Compassion explores one of the groups--the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) --that helped women access safe abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. This little-known group's actions in the past can teach us about the history of the fight for abortion rights and help us find ways to defend access to abortion in our present.

The CCS started in New York and ultimately formed a nationwide network of mostly male clergy members who counseled women with what were known at the time as "problem pregnancies" by providing referrals to abortion providers. Alarmed by the death rates of botched abortions (there are estimated to have been 5,000 recorded abortions per year in the early 1960s) and often by having personally witnessed the desperate situations of women in their families or congregations, CCS members went to great lengths to find physicians who would provide safe, affordable abortions for the women they counseled. Operating from 1967 to 1973, the CCS referred hundreds of thousands of women across the country to providers vetted by the group.

Are you surprised never to have heard of the CCS? Don't be. This book project began when the authors, one a board member of her local Planned Parenthood chapter and the other a longtime social justice activist then working on a Ph.D. in history, first heard of the group's existence at a church event. Intrigued by the idea of a group of clergy whose activism was very different from today's stereotype of religious anti-abortion zealotry, Dirks and Relf set out to investigate. After they learned that only one book about the group had ever been published (a memoir by two of the founders, Rev. Howard Moody and Arlene Carmen, in 1973), their research ultimately became To Offer Compassion.

Dirks and Relf interviewed over 70 people, delved into archives (including some otherwise closed archives at New York University), and were granted access to personal research materials. One of their most surprising findings was that written records of the CCS existed because the group's work was not a secret. In fact, the authors found, "CCS had started in 1967 in New York City with an announcement--on the front page of the New York Times, no less--by twenty-one rabbis and ministers, including [founder Howard] Moody, all from major denominations, that they would counsel women seeking abortions and, when appropriate, refer them to safe physicians" (p. x).

This book is a history of a particular and singular group, but connections are made throughout to the network of other groups working toward legalization in the years leading up to the Roe v. Wade decision and to what activists today can learn from the CCS's legacy. The book also provides a concise history of the fight for reproductive rights, along with other relevant data--for example, an appendix shows the demographic range of women seen by the New York CCS. Stories of actual women helped by the CCS bring to life the desperation and fear felt by those who sought abortions before Roe and explain why clergy would have seen their counseling and referrals as extensions of pastoral care.

It is clear that the male clergy were truly motivated by the desire to help women, but in telling the CCS story, Dirks and Relf are also aware of the ways the sexism and racism of the era may have created barriers even while help was the goal. The tensions of the time were reflected in uneasy relationships between feminist groups, Black clergy, and the CCS, as described in Chapter 7, "A Different Kind of Radical Group."

One of the most powerful lessons of the CCS, however, is "the value of allyship" (p. 161). As Dirks and Relf note, "The mainline clergy of the 1960s, predominantly privileged white males, might have seemed the least likely group to stand up effectively for women's reproductive rights--especially poor women's rights" (p. 161). Yet stand up they did. CCS members used their privilege and their voices for bold direct action that helped effect change, and they often took personal risks to do so. To Offer Compassion reminds us that social justice work needs many voices and many forms of action to succeed and that working across differences can harness great power for positive social change.

This book would be a valuable addition to university library, public library, and personal collections, and excerpts would make excellent readings for women's and gender studies classes. The chapters are structured in a way that would allow assigning individual chapters or sections as stand-alone readings for a course, but there is an overall narrative are that makes the whole an enjoyable and informative read as well. The writing is lively, and the descriptions of the dynamic figures in the CCS, especially founding members Arlene Carmen and Rev. Howard Moody, really bring the history alive. To Offer Compassion is a useful glimpse into a little-known piece of the past at a time when such a glimpse is especially relevant to the present.


1. Guttmacher Institute, "Policy Trends in the United States, 2017," January 2, 2018;


Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. University of Wisconsin Press, 2017. 226 pp. appendixes, notes, bibl. index. $26.95, ISBN 978-0299311308.

[Rebecca Stephens is a professor of English and the coordinator of the women's and gender studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.]
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Title Annotation:BOOKS
Author:Stephens, Rebecca
Publication:Resources for Gender and Women's Studies: A Feminist Review
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2018
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