When clergy blessed the new Schenectady Planned Parenthood clinic in January, they honored a long history of clergy support for family planning.
In 1916, when Margaret Sanger, the founder of the American family planning movement, began her work, more than 18,000 women died in childbirth. Many of those women were carrying unintended pregnancies in families that were already bigger than many parents wanted.
But the laws of the time said birth control was a crime. Many clergy recognized this as a grossly immoral situation. Why should women die and leave their children motherless when the means to prevent unintended pregnancy was available?
Members of clergy began to help Margaret Sanger. In cities around the country, Presbyterian, Methodist and many other churches opened their doors to house Planned Parenthood clinics. In 1934, the Episcopal Church in America officially endorsed birth control for women who wanted to avoid pregnancy. By the end of the 1940s, all major Protestant and Jewish bodies had joined them.
‘Community health resource’
In 1946, 3,200 clergy signed a petition issued by the Planned Parenthood Advisory Council denouncing religious opposition to birth control. In 1947, the Central Conference of American Rabbis encouraged its members “to make maximum use” of Planned Parenthood services “as a community health resource.” Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church fought to prevent women from using birth control. But many rabbis and ministers joined with Planned Parenthood to make contraceptive services available. Clergy helped Planned Parenthood win those fights. They also led the struggle to get contraception to unmarried women.
Then clergy began to fight for legal abortion. On May 22, 1967, the front page of The New York Times announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation on Abortion. More than 1,400 clergy across the nation joined together in a volunteer network to help women find safe abortion care.
By 1970, they had referred nearly 100,000 women for abortions. That year, the state of New York legalized abortion. Clergy knew that women from around the country would flock to New York for safe and legal abortion care. They also knew that hospitals were not prepared for this influx.
So the clergy opened their own clinic.
It is a little-known fact that the first legal abortion clinic was opened by clergy. It was called Women’s Services, on East 73rd Street in New York City. Thousands of women sought quality care at Women’s Services for more than a year, until enough clinics had opened to handle the tremendous number of patients.
Believing that it is profoundly unjust for the state to control the intimate reproductive lives of women, clergy across the nation continue to be part of the Planned Parenthood Clergy Network. We come to bless Planned Parenthood out of our faith teachings. As clergy, we witness the way Planned Parenthood can help people arrive at informed decisions about their reproductive health care needs.
Support patient’s decision
Out of strong and enduring relationships with individuals and families, we have come to recognize the importance of supporting anyone facing a medical decision, especially when it comes to reproductive health.
People of faith seek counsel from their spiritual leaders on many health matters, but medical decisions are ultimately made by patients and their health care providers. No religious leader or government official has the right to force a decision that is contrary to the beliefs of the individual.
Clergy have been blessing Planned Parenthood for generations. The clergy who participated in the blessing of the clinic in Schenectady were part of a long tradition of clergy support for the work of Planned Parenthood.
It is a tradition which seeks to be faithful to the biblical demand for justice. And justice means that a woman must have control of her own life.
The Rev. Tom Davis of the United Church of Christ is author of “Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and its Clergy Alliances.” Rabbi Dennis S. Ross directs Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany, a statewide, multi-faith advocacy network supporting access to the full range of reproductive health care services and comprehensive sex education.
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