Reverend Howard Moody

Reverend Howard Moody was known as the Harriet Tubman of the abortion rights movement. He created an extensive network of clergy members and abortion providers in the years prior to Roe v. Wade. As a minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City, Reverend Moody helped found the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in 1967. This network eventually grew to approximately 1,400 ministers and rabbis throughout the country. He died on September 12, 2012.

There was a group of clergy that met monthly discussing social issues and theological problems, and so this issue of reproductive freedom became very important. Some of us decided that we were going to try to do something to help women. And the way we felt was the best way to do that was to help them find safe and secure abortions, because the situation at that time was just horrible. It was the most humiliating, frightening prospect for women that you can imagine.

We talked to women who had been through it. What did they need? What would have been helpful to them? And of course, most important was a good doctor that was safe and secure.

We decided that the thing to do was to open up a counseling service. We called it the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. We could not be underground because then we would be in trouble with the law. It opened in May of ’67 with a front-page story in The New York Times.

We had 26 clergy, rabbis and ministers. In order to find those doctors, my colleague, Arlene Carmen, she was the secretary of the church at the time, she would go out and pretend to be pregnant. She’d go into the doctor’s office and observe the cleanliness, observe the people who were there. Then when she’s up on the table and her legs were in the stirrups, she’d then tell him what she was about. That she represented a group of clergy who were referring women for abortions, and they will have been completely counseled, not only whatever moral and ethical questions the woman might have, but also to the physical procedure of the abortion itself. If she saw women mistreated in any way, even abusive language or whatever, that was it, no way, so we picked out the best. There weren’t very many.

In some of those places Arlene went to the waiting room was a mess. It was dirty. That was a criteria. Were there sterilizing machines? Where were they? And then the way in which the doctor spoke. He had to be competent, because we’d cut him off in a minute if something happened to the women. And then they had to keep that price down.

As soon as we opened that door, women came from all over the country. They came by plane and train and bus and car and we were deluged. Even though there were 26 ministers and rabbis, we were overloaded. I did counseling six hours a day, five days a week, sometimes six. So I’d call Philadelphia and I’d say to my friend, “Look, why are all these women coming to New York to get this information? Why can’t they get it there?” And he said, “You mean, you want me to do…?” I said, “Yeah, I want you to do it.” And so then they got trained. It was a very heavy-duty emotional issue, and consequently to have the religious institutions affirming their decision was very important at that time in history.

If a woman decided that she couldn’t do it we’d help her have the baby, give it up for adoption, whatever. There were people in the congregation who had been through this and the congregation, men and women, were absolutely supportive. I don’t remember a single voice raised against what we were doing. I couldn’t have done it without the church.

I think what we did was a real lesson in social change, and it’s hard. It’s very hard for people to change their minds about issues like this. I felt then and I feel now that the church has a certain obligation because those laws are on the books to do something about changing them. That’s our penance, to change those laws which are so unfair and unreal. I’ve been swimming upstream a lot of my ministerial life. I wasn’t interested in wasting my time debating about abortion as long as women didn’t have the right to an abortion.

It was one of the most important ministries I did at Judson Church. And a lot of ministers have told me in retrospect that the most significant years of their ministry were the years when they were counseling these women. Because it led to women’s freedom on reproductive choice. We set models for counseling and we set models for clinics that would rise up after the law changed. I wouldn’t say that we had the most impact, but we did have an impact. I don’t think any other group except religious institutions could have done this.

—Edited transcript from Voices of Choice