Donna Schaper is the current minister at Judson Memorial Church and a former member of Chicago’s Clergy Consultations Services, which helped women procure abortions before Roe v. Wade. Photographed at home in Manhattan working in the kitchen, on May 18, 2017. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, a few dozen women would turn up in the basement of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel at the University of Chicago. They were from different walks of life but were there for the same reason: They were pregnant and didn’t want to be.
The clergymen and women who opened their doors to these women provided spiritual guidance, but also practical assistance: It was before the Roe v. Wade ruling, but if a woman decided she wanted to end her pregnancy, they helped her get an abortion, and in some cases put women on planes to other states and even other countries where the procedure was legal.
They called themselves the Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies, and their mission was to protect women from risky back-alley procedures by establishing and vetting a network of safe providers.
Made of up pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders, and operating on the premise that this was the most compassionate way to help the women, the group also pushed for local hospitals and doctors to provide abortions and sought to address any moral or spiritual questions the women posed about their decision.
Today, the religious community is predominantly identified with the anti-abortion movement, and efforts to ban or limit access to abortions have long been led by evangelicals and other conservative Christians.
But in the years leading to the 1973 Roe ruling, religious leaders from throughout the country organized a network of consultation services, and this weekend, many are gathering in New York City to celebrate their 50th anniversary.
The milestone is marked by a front page story in the New York Times from May 22, 1967, that profiled the mission and activities of the local group, which called itself Clergy Consultation on Abortion.
"Part of what was remarkable about it was they didn’t try to go underground. They were being very upfront about what they were doing," said Abigail Hastings, who is coordinating the anniversary celebration.
"Hopefully, people will start to understand that even though the religious leaders now are not as loud as fundamentalists are about the abortion issue, they nevertheless have had a record of a positive stance on abortion when they recognize that it does endanger the woman’s life or the way that she needs to live her life," Hastings said.
The message — and the fight — remain relevant today, advocates say, given various efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and chip away at access. President Trump has also signed an executive order to block aid to groups that provide abortion counseling overseas.
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, though, the battle was primarily focused on making abortion safe and legal. According to a 1969 Chicago newspaper report, thousands of women each year were turning up at Cook County Hospital with complications from botched abortions, a figure the Rev. E. Spencer Parsons, then the dean of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, cited at the time as the reason the Clergy Consultation Service was needed.
Parsons founded the group in April 1969 with 18 members; the number had reached 30 by the end of the year, and by then they had counseled more than 500 women, according to the published report.
Other groups in Chicago, primarily the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, also known as the Jane Collective, were also helping women access abortions or even providing the procedure.
But women who sought out the clergy groups took extra comfort in knowing that they were led by "trusted, respected members of the community who represented someone who wasn’t going to rip them off," said Gillian Frank, who has been studying the groups for years and is writing a book on them.
The Rev. Donna Schaper was a University of Chicago seminary student when Parsons recruited her to help with the effort. Now senior minister at Judson Memorial Church in New York, Schaper said she believes abortions are a medical choice that should be available to adult women.
"If you think you can take care of (more children), that’s wonderful, but when you’re poor and you’re going to decrease the life space for other children … I think that’s morally wrong because you’re not stewarding the life that is around you," Schaper said.
Many of the women Schaper counseled back then were less concerned about the procedure itself than whether God would still love them if they went through with it.
In those early days, many of the women were sent out of state, and some were even flown overseas to locations including London, for the procedure. The clergy guided the women in getting passports and smallpox vaccinations and arranged for their plane and hotel reservations, as they would stay for a day or two to make sure there were no complications. Clergy members would follow up with the women after the procedures.
Parsons regularly revised the list of providers. Meeting minutes of the group archived at Northwestern University show that members decided in the fall of 1969 to cease referrals in Illinois because "the legal risks are too high." Others doctors were dropped after women reported having bad experiences with them. The minutes used codes in place of providers’ names, presumably to protect their identities.
One early member was Harold Kudan, founding rabbi of Am Shalom synagogue in Glencoe.
Kudan said he isn’t sure whether his involvement was commonly known within the synagogue, but he did recall providing referrals to some congregants.
"I am gratified that I was able to assist in this work, and I’m glad I was able to help people in distress, which is actually part of my calling as a rabbi and a member of the clergy," he said.
The relative openness of the operation did come with risks.
In 1970, Rabbi Max Ticktin, then Hillel director at the University of Chicago, was threatened with prosecution by Michigan authorities after referring a woman to a doctor there for an abortion. The woman turned out to be an undercover agent, and authorities sought to extradite the rabbi, but prosecutors in Michigan eventually backed down amid protests and backlash.
Schaper had her own tussle with the law when, she said, the chapel basement operation was raided and all of the women and clergy present taken into custody. They were held at a police station for a few hours.
Schaper said service members refused to talk to authorities, citing clergy-client privilege, adding that police were "roughing us up and scaring us more than anything else."
She believes the experience for many women showed them they could make their own choices about other aspects of their lives as well.
"When a woman claims agency like that, she becomes different," Schaper said. "She’s not a baby anymore."
Many of the clergy groups disbanded in the years after Roe v. Wade, though many members continued their work advocating for access to birth control and abortion.
One person who encountered the group in its infancy was Joseph Scheidler, a pioneer of the anti-abortion movement who became a full-time activist after Roe v. Wade and founded the Pro-Life Action League.
The Chicago resident, now 89, recalled picketing the Clergy Consultation Service but also attempting dialogue with the group.
"These are supposedly religious people, and they send a terrible message about God’s place in a person’s life," he said. "They were willing to help women get abortions, when their obligation was to speak about the life that she was carrying and the sacredness of that life."
Scheidler called the group’s anniversary celebration a "travesty."
Some religious leaders cite such widely held beliefs as one reason their work is not complete.
Kudan said he’s worried about today’s climate around abortion and that it’s an important to remind people of what Roe v. Wade changed.
"We were setting obstacles in the path of women and subjugating them to all kinds of disabilities," Kudan said. "We should be helping them. It’s insane what we’re doing today. Women have a right to their own bodies; that’s the bottom line."