History

People Helping Women Get Abortions Pre-Roe Were Heroes. It Wasn’t Enough.

Stories like the Rev. Robert Hare’s are incredibly moving. But what we need is for abortion to be legal.

A pregnant girl hides her face as she fills out paperwork at an abortion counseling center.
A pregnant girl hides her face as she fills out paperwork at an abortion counseling center in Los Angeles, 1970.   Mary Frampton/Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, UCLA Library Special Collections. 

She was a 23-year-old white unmarried schoolteacher. She was also pregnant, and she would inevitably be fired from her teaching job when her employers found out. It was April 1969, elective abortion was illegal in Ohio, and unwed motherhood was a source of great shame.

Desperate, the young schoolteacher reached out for help to a recently formed religious organization, the Cleveland Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. The Plain Dealer, one of Cleveland’s major newspapers, had spotlighted the CCCSA, as did a slew of other news outlets across Ohio and the United States. Through these laudatory stories, Ohioans heard a startling announcement: an ecumenical group of local Protestant and Jewish clergy had announced that it was their “pastoral responsibility [to] give aid and assistance to women with problem pregnancies,” and promised to help them find an abortion, even if that meant breaking the law.

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Modeled after a group—the Clergy Consultation Service—formed in New York City in 1967, the CCCSA maintained that there were “higher laws and moral obligations” than the restrictive abortion laws written by politicians. The clergy’s open defiance of abortion restrictions in the 1960s and early 1970s came at a time of well-publicized civil disobedience by religious leaders in the civil rights and antiwar movements who defied legal codes to spotlight their unjustness. In applying this same ethos to abortion restrictions, CCS groups across the country attempted to change the meaning of abortion from sinful to sacred while affirming women’s right to reproductive freedom.

However, for this young teacher and the clergyman who helped her, the religious crusade for reproductive freedom also revealed a troubling truth: The terrain that CCS groups navigated was treacherous. Profiteering and incompetent abortion providers, overburdened clergy, desperate and overwhelming demand from thousands upon thousands of abortion seekers, and most of all the hostility of district attorneys and police meant that the wheels regularly fell off an imperfect vehicle for delivering abortion access.

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The Cleveland Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion formed because of urgent realities. Hundreds of thousands of women were seeking out illegal abortions each year. Widely circulated media and medical reports indicated that thousands of unwillingly pregnant women were being injured or dying annually from botched illegal abortions. And despite the mounting body count, many legislators were resistant to changing laws banning elective abortion. Such laws, clergy concluded, were not only unethical and ineffective at stopping abortion. They were in fact creating a public health crisis.

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But many clergy and faithful didn’t need a newspaper or academic study to understand the harsh human cost of restrictive abortion laws. These were apparent in congregations across the country. Whether it was the unmarried daughters who were sent away to homes for unwed mothers to hide an unwanted pregnancy, or the married congregants begging their clergy for help securing an abortion, or the harrowing hospital visits to a beloved friend or relative who had been maimed by a shoddy backstreet abortion, or the fraught funerals of those who died, the corrosive effects of these laws were vividly felt in religious communities.

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It was these conditions that prompted Protestant and Jewish congregations and denominations across the United States to call for the reform or repeal of abortion laws. In doing so, they challenged Catholic theology, which held that a fetus is an “ensouled child” from the moment of conception. Instead, they emphasized the concrete needs of the already born, stating that these trumped that of “potential life.” At the same time, clergy formed interfaith CCS groups in dozens of cities to minister to “women who are presently driven into the underworld of criminality or the dangerous practice of self-induced abortion.” In Cleveland, women simply had to call 229-7423 to reach an electronic recording that would list the names and contact information for local CCCSA clergy who would offer them abortion counseling and referral free of charge.

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And so, the 23-year-old schoolteacher joined thousands of other locals and women from across the Midwest in calling up Cleveland’s CCS hotline for help. She and her boyfriend opted to visit Robert Hare, a Presbyterian minister leading an experimental church called the Congregation for Reconciliation.

A directory for Clergy Consultation Services on problem pregnancies.
A CCS directory. Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Constitutional Amendments of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 93rd Congress, Second Session. Via Google Books. 
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Hare was a veteran civil rights activist with a long history of engaging in civil disobedience. Like many other mainline Protestants and liberal Jewish clergy of that era, he believed that his faith demanded that he be “a force for change of the social order.” In the early 1960s, Hare had been a chaplain at State College in Raleigh, North Carolina. After he attempted to integrate some of Raleigh’s movie theaters, restrooms, and restaurants, the arch-segregationist and future United States Sen. Jesse Helms used his television show to publicly rail against him. Helms’ campaign cost Hare his job and forced him out of Raleigh.

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With the help of his Black Presbyterian colleagues, Hare found a new position at First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. Presbyterians elected their ministers, and in Richmond, Hare became the first ever freely elected white Presbyterian minister to lead an all-Black congregation. After five years serving in Richmond, Hare left for a new posting in Cleveland, where he continued his racial justice work at an experimental activist congregation that considered abortion rights to be part of its purview.

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And so, when the young teacher came to Robert Hare’s office for counseling, she and her boyfriend were greeted by a clergyman whose mandate was to offer nonjudgmental and nondirective “problem pregnancy” counseling. The aim, as one Cleveland CCS document explained, was “to offer compassion to persons as they express their feeling about their situation.” Some abortion seekers sought religious counseling, and in these cases, CCS clergy worked to “neutralize distorted notions of sinfulness and criminality” and “to make the abortion experience a natural and constructive one.” Most women, however, just wanted practical advice on how to get an abortion. In that spirit, Hare presented the couple with a number of options, including traveling either across state lines or abroad to Canada, Mexico, England, or Japan to seek out medical services from one of the precious few providers in the CCS network. Travel abroad was prohibitively expensive. Local travel was slightly less so. As a result, the teacher joined thousands of women in the (still expensive and time-consuming) process of crossing state lines to obtain an abortion. And that’s when the wheels fell off.

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[Read: How Women Were Made to Suffer for Abortions Before Roe]

Following their lawyers’ advice, CCS clergy across the country mandated medical travel in hopes of making criminal prosecution more difficult and expensive for local law enforcement. The abortion provider at the arrival destination was supposed to have been thoroughly vetted. His medical credentials and techniques were supposed to be above board. But that’s not how it played out. Deluged with demands for help and desperate to provide abortion assistance to the hundreds of women seeking relief, the Cleveland CCS did not follow their own best practices. As a result, the schoolteacher and her companion were sent to an unlicensed physician in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, named Pierre Brunelle who charged them $400—an amount that would be over $3,000 in 2022—for an abortion. His $400 rate, which was comparatively cheap for 1969, was opportunistic: Brunelle would often charge patients far more, adjusting his price to what he believed they could pay. Brunelle also had been convicted three times since the early 1950s for performing abortions. Earlier arrests resulted from the fact that his subpar medical work landed clients in the emergency room.

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The schoolteacher made it through the abortion without incident. But after the procedure was through, she returned home to find that her troubles, as well as Brunelle’s and Hare’s, were just beginning. Unbeknownst to the CCCSA, the Massachusetts State Police were already surveilling Brunelle’s house and waiting for the right opportunity to arrest him. On May 1, they tailed a car leaving Brunelle’s residence. In it, a college student, still bleeding from her surgery (she later required hospitalization), and her two friends were on their way back to the University of Massachusetts Amherst. One can imagine how scared these students felt, as police pulled them over; what raced through their minds as they were interrogated for hours at a police barracks; and what they feared as they agreed to the district attorney’s offer of immunity in exchange for their testimony against Brunelle.

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That same night, state police raided Brunelle’s house at 2 a.m. and found files containing the names and addresses of a number of his patients from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as thank-you notes from some of these women. The discovery prompted the district attorney for Middlesex County to launch a joint investigation with the Cleveland police. Massachusetts investigators already had enough evidence to convict Brunelle. The fact that they traveled to Ohio to interview those listed in Brunelle’s records indicated how dogged they were in their crusade against abortion. In Cleveland, they badgered women at their homes and their workplaces, pressuring them to testify about the circumstances that led them to travel across state lines.

One of the Ohio women that the Massachusetts and Cleveland police targeted was the 23-year-old schoolteacher, who came home from work to discover police had already questioned her parents, and in the process revealed that she had obtained an abortion. Distraught, fearful, and probably ashamed, she gave up Hare’s name to the investigators.

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In June, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts charged Robert W. Hare under laws that held any person who “aids, counsels, or procures” another for abortion as subject to the same penalties as one who performs the surgery. The formal charge levied was “being an accessory to abortion before the fact.” In effect, Hare, who had never been to Massachusetts nor met the abortion provider, faced up to seven years in prison and a hefty fine.

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The indictments of Hare and Brunelle became a rallying cause for Protestant and Jewish clergy in Massachusetts and Ohio, who sprang into action around the court case and articulated a religious right to offer abortion counseling and to access abortion. Hare and his compatriots argued that he was exercising his religious rights in offering abortion counseling. And this activity, they maintained, was legally protected by pastor-penitent relationships. The Episcopal priest and nationally syndicated columnist Lester Kinsolving agreed with this assessment. Kinsolving published a laudatory op-ed about Hare and the CCS, which, reprinted in dozens of newspapers, underlined a religious right to abortion. The National Council of Churches, the largest Christian ecumenical organization in the United States, also defended Hare. They even gave him space in their newsletter to share his own story. Nobody at the NCC thought to stop Hare—perhaps embittered, undoubtedly stressed—from sharing the name of the woman who outed him to the police. That he got the woman’s name wrong was a small but revealing commentary on the volume of triage counseling he and other CCS members offered to the droves of desperate of women coming through their sanctuary doors.

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While the mobilization around Hare showed tremendous commitment from liberal religious activists, it also revealed how peripheral their ideas were to jurisprudence. At trial, Hare emphasized that his activities were “an exercise of my ordained duties.” The Presbytery of Cleveland—the organizing body to which Hare belonged—issued a remarkable statement emphasizing the sanctity of pastoral counseling and asking to be brought up on charges in Massachusetts, saying that it was corporately aware of and responsible for “the alleged violation.”

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However, Hare’s lawyers focused on jurisdictional and technical issues. And though a decision in Hare’s favor at the Massachusetts Superior Court in April 1970 led religious commentators to congratulate themselves for swaying the judge to their point of view, the technical arguments, not the religious ones, were in fact instrumental. The judge’s decision explicitly avoided constitutional questions, and his only acknowledgment of Hare’s pastoral activities lay in one unelaborated sentence: “The defendant is an ordained Presbyterian minister.”

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[Read: What’s Happening in Texas Isn’t Medieval. It’s Worse.]

A different religious dynamic played out at Brunelle’s trial. A devout Catholic judge presided over the case and signaled his theological beliefs during the proceedings. Brunelle’s lawyers attempted to bring the question of religious freedom to the fore. They challenged Massachusetts abortion laws on the grounds that the commonwealth had adopted “legislatively the moral position of the Roman Catholic Church to the detriment of the positions of other denominations and also of non-religious persons.”

With the help of CCS leaders, Brunelle’s attorneys rounded up prestigious Protestant and Jewish expert witnesses to testify. It may have mattered privately to these religious figures that Brunelle was an incompetent unlicensed provider who repeatedly harmed his patients. But for the CCS and other liberal clergy trying to overturn laws that exposed hundreds of thousands of women to similar or worse dangers, an imperfect opportunity to mobilize was still an opportunity to be seized.

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The Catholic judge, however, had no interest in giving his courtroom over to these liberal religious voices for abortion rights. Instead, he allowed Brunelle’s lawyers to collect affidavits from them and submit them into evidence. These same affidavits, filled with spectacular and robust Protestant and Jewish arguments for religious and reproductive freedom, barely saw the light of day. Instead, they were quietly filed away with the court transcripts and other ephemera. The same judge, meanwhile, allowed the testimony of a Roman Catholic doctor who attested for the state the theological position “that an embryo is a human being from the moment of conception.” In December of 1970, a jury found Brunelle guilty, and he was sentenced to four to six years for his activities.

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Hare’s legal relief was also short-lived. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts appealed the Superior Court decision, intent on securing a conviction against him for his counseling activities. In late 1972, even after numerous states had already liberalized their abortion laws, Hare’s case was still winding its way through the court system. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in January of 1973, Massachusetts prosecutors had no choice but to drop the charges and end a four-year ordeal for Hare. By then, illegal abortion providers, police raids, and interrogations of abortion seekers were quickly becoming a thing of the past, as clinics and hospitals around the country opened their doors to make the procedure, for a couple of decades at least, increasingly accessible and affordable.

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As we stare down the barrel of the imminent Dobbs v. Jackson decision, the case of the Rev. Robert Hare and the circumstances that led to it are haunting, because they only hint at what tribulations may await activists and abortion seekers in the months and years ahead. While we might take heart in the courage of the many clergy who risked so much to ensure that many thousands of women could travel anonymously to secure safe and unremarkable abortions, we must also note that the network was not an adequate substitute for legal, local, and affordable reproductive health care. The scarcity of safe and licensed providers, the cost of the procedure, the time-consuming nature of travel, the furtiveness of the endeavor in the face of hostile state power, and the overwhelming demand for medical and spiritual relief day after day for years on end, all meant that many mistakes were made, and that too many abortion seekers were left behind.

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Even as other states reformed or repealed their abortion laws in the 1960s and early 1970s, a motivated Massachusetts prosecutor had ample resources to have police chase down abortion seekers in the dead of night or visit their homes and workplaces in other states. Newspapers would without compunction publish abortion seekers’ names and other identifying information. And prosecutors could mobilize further resources to pursue a legal case against a minister for years—a case that would have bankrupted him, had it not been for generous donations from friends and allies.

Even as they worked to the point of exhaustion to help abortion seekers, liberal religious clergy’s voices found little hearings in courtrooms where judges from faiths hostile to abortion put their thumbs on the scales of justice. That these events transpired before the advent of a well-funded, well-organized interfaith anti-abortion movement, yoked to a Republican Party that has promised for decades that abortion would be once again made a crime, suggests that the past is only a preview of the suffering yet to come.

For more on abortion in the years before Roe, listen to this season of Slow Burn:

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