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A Great Clergy Voice for Choice Is Gone

In the abortion wars that have played out in the last 40+ years, there has hardly been a more impressive voice for choice than Rev. Howard Moody who died on Wednesday at age 91. In this day and age, when we think of clergy or churches in the same thought bubble as abortion, we assume condemnation of the practice and of the women seeking the procedure. But many of the pioneers of wanting safe legal abortions available for women were clergy from a variety of traditions.

I had the privilege of meeting Howard and talking with him a number of years ago and he was quite the amazing man. The New York Times gave him quite the obituary but left out one of the most important parts of his life which I will quote directly from the Judson Memorial Church’s web site:(my emphasis)

Moody was perhaps best known for his pioneering work for women’s rights in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1967 he was a co-founder of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, a national network of Protestant and Jewish clergy who helped women find safe, confidential, and compassionate abortions before they were legal. In Renewal magazine, he wrote: “It is hard to draw any other conclusion from the background and history of the present law than that it is directly calculated, whether conscious or unconscious, to be an excessive and self-righteous punishment, physically and psychologically, of women. This example of severe sanction against women may have been understandable when men were convinced that women were witches and demons, but in the latter part of the 20th century, it is a cruel travesty on equal justice and a primitive form of retribution unworthy of both our theological and democratic traditions.”

While never particularly interested in the limelight, Moody did not want to give the impression that the mission of CCS was anything but the moral high ground, that there was nothing to hide, even as CCS ventured into illegal territory. So on May 22, 1967, the world learned of this unusual service through an exclusive story given to Edward B. Fiske, religion editor of the New York Times, whose front-page story headlined: “Clergymen Offer Abortion Advice: 21 Ministers and Rabbis Form New Group—Will Propose Alternatives.” The “alternatives” usually consisted of referrals to competent and compassionate doctors who would perform abortions, rather than the dangerous back-alley practitioners who were often the only option known to the women. With his longtime Program Associate at Judson, Arlene Carmen, Moody wrote the story of CCS in Abortion Counseling and Social Change: From Illegal Act to Medical Practice (Judson Press 1973).

Rev. Moody, a Baptist (American, not Southern) minister—and former Marine Sergeant who sported his flat-top hair cut his whole life—saw through the smoke and mirrors of self-righteous male clergy (they were mostly male at the time) who saw women as homemakers or chattel only, unable to trouble their little minds with choices about how their own bodies should or should not be used as incubators to raise the offspring of the head of household. He knew that women deserved to determine their own reproductive fate. He saw enough suffering to want to act rather than judge.

At his own legal peril, Rev. Moody started the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, an organization that provided referrals for clean, safe abortions to women in need. The CCS had a yellow pages listing in the phone book (remember those?) a phone line of its own, and eventually a network of 1400 clergy who all risked legal ramifications for doing this as it was prior to Roe v Wade.

I asked Howard on a conference call several years ago how they got away with it without being arrested. He conceded that their phone was tapped—for about two weeks. When the “tappers” discovered that the women calling included the daughters and wives of police captains and judges, they stopped. Yes, fine upstanding, well connected citizens needed abortions at the time just as much as the “sluts” did. And they still do today.

Moody’s program associate, Arlene Carmen traveled far and wide “auditioning” doctors. She would pretend to be pregnant and check out the doctors and facilities before they would be willing to send other women there. The list of clean, safe facilities with kind doctors was short.

Most people assume that religious people are all anti-choice (I won’t use the term “pro-life: because we are all pro-life.) It is far from true though the fundamentalists and Catholics have done their best to make it seem so, and have succeeded far more than they should have. The country is filled with clergy who respect a woman’s right to determine her own reproductive fate, consulting her own conscience, knowing she will live with her choice one way or another.

Very few people have any idea of how important this man was to not just to the causes of reproductive freedom, but so many other cutting edge issues. He was a prophet, a pastor, and a mensch. He was always crawling out on a limb and often took some of his parishioners with him:

“For this church, our work with prostitutes is within a line of ministries that have been carried on for the last thirty years. In the 1950’s, the scapegoats of this community and others in the city were people called ‘juvenile delinquents’—they were blamed for everything wrong that happened. We gave them sanctuary, furnished them with social clubs, defended them when the police harassed and hassled them. They weren’t the children of this congregation; they were tough, sometimes violent, troubled Italian-American teenagers. In the late 50’s this church worked with heroin addicts—fought for their humanization, and picketed for hospital beds so they could be treated as patients rather than criminals. In the 60’s we befriended and stood with blacks and hippies and people that hated the war. These were not ‘our people’ or neighbors, but we learned from their lives and their struggle. In the late 60’s, it was women being criminalized for getting an abortion. We identified with them, supported them and conspired with them to break the law in order that they might exercise the God-given right of freedom of choice. Our work with prostitutes is in line with our historical role as a people. I am glad we’re there, and I am deeply grateful to Arlene and the other women who led us into this prophetic/ priestly function of this congregation.” [“Humanizing the Hooker: An Ancient Ministry,” February 19, 1978]

There may, for all I know, be many clergy out there doing the kind of work Howard Moody did, but we don’t hear about them. Instead, the media showers its attention on ego/money driven mega-pastors preaching prosperity or priests who abuse those entrusted to their care.

I will forever be grateful for his life, his work and his example. May his memory be a blessing.

Through writing this I learned that Howard Moody was also given an award for his championing end of life decisions by Compassion and Choices, an organization founded by my spouse long ago that Mr. Rev. left 15 years ago for another job.

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Ordained clergy working full time in a church. Married with cats. Love chocolate. Cub fan since I was 10. Been an Apple/mac user since 1981!