My Story with the Clergy Consultation Service

PeggyThe Rev. Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Howland

I was one of the clergypersons who co-founded the clergy consultation service in 1969 in the Capital District of New York State (Albany, Troy and Schenectady area).  I had recently been called as Pastor of the Woodside Presbyterian Church in Troy.   When I took on a part-time position with Troy Campus Ministry as Protestant Chaplain at the nearby Hudson Valley Community College, the Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy approached me about starting a Clergy Consultation Service.

I was already committed to reproductive freedom.  In the early sixties I had served on the Board of Planned Parenthood in Passaic County, New Jersey, where we hired a field worker to go door to door in the public housing projects in Paterson, NJ.  Poor women with several small children would shed tears when they learned there was a way to stop having babies every year.

It wasn’t until 1965, while doing graduate study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City that a psychology professor asked us a question – should women be “baby factories” for the sake of childless couples wanting to adopt?  Yes, it seemed right that young women should not be forced to bring a pregnancy to term against their will.

Up to that time, I had been opposed to abortion, because it was the cause of injury and death to many women, especially the poor and the young and uneducated.  Soon the New York State Council of Churches launched a campaign to repeal the abortion laws in NY State, because it was ILLEGAL abortion that was killing women.  Ending illegal abortion could only be accomplished by providing safe legal abortions with proper medical care under sanitary conditions.

I recall the excitement in 1967 when I read in the New York Times that Howard Moody and other clergy had announced their Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.  It was the same year that I was approached by a clergy friend in Connecticut to escort a 16 year old girl to Puerto Rico for an illegal abortion, which had been arranged by her family doctor.  We knew, of course, that privileged women could get safe abortions with the right connections and enough money, even if illegal.

We used assumed names.  I did not know her real identity, and she did not know mine, or where I lived.  We met in a Philadelphia train station, where her family and boyfriend had brought her under the guise of going on a vacation together.

She and I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico.  My plane ticket said “Martha Hill”, but no I.D. was required in those days.

The taxi driver in San Juan questioned me about the doctor’s address, and why we were going so far when there were plenty of doctors closer that he would be happy to take us to.

After the procedure, when she was doubled over with pain, she was a real trooper when I told her quietly that she must stand up straight and walk slowly to the taxi station and show no pain on her face.  We repeated that quiet slow walk into the hotel and across the lobby and into the elevator, standing up straight and looking calm and maintaining our secret.

That night I held her stomach while she vomited.  If we had gone to a hospital, they would have demanded to know the name of the doctor who had performed the abortion. So I called the same doctor, who sent an M.D. to the hotel.  She was having a reaction to the anesthesia.  Later I learned that a University of Colorado study at the time had determined there were 350,000 cases of post-operative complications every year in the United States, following illegal abortions.

When I got my first Pastorate in Troy in 1968, I came committed to using this opportunity in New York’s Capital District to work for the repeal of abortion laws.

So it was an enthusiastic “yes” to the RPI chaplain, and we organized a group of fourteen clergy – both Jewish and Protestant – to become the “Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancies”.  This name seemed safer to use in the Capital District than including “abortion” in our name.  We got a phone with an answering machine and a message that was changed every week, giving two phone numbers that could be called for help with “problem pregnancies”.  Two of us were on duty each week, so we used our own phone numbers, but great precautions were taken to keep our records private and secret, not to say anything over the phone, and not to give “advice”.

What we gave was information.  We trained ourselves in what later was called “all options counseling”.  We learned medical facts, the choices available, how to implement choices, and we gave information, leaving every choice and the carrying out of that choice to the women who came.

We met with other clergy from across New York State, for training in the facts by medical personnel.  If a woman chose having a baby to keep or to give for adoption, we provided information on whatever she needed to know.   If a woman chose abortion, we told her how to get a legal abortion, if possible.  Anyone who lived in Schenectady County could get a legal abortion in a hospital if two Medical Doctors signed that her life was in danger, and seven psychiatrists were willing to sign those papers.  She could also go to England or to Japan where it was legal.  So we had information on how to get a passport.

But often no legal recourse was practical, so we had a list and gave her appointment information for illegal procedures that were safe.  She had to make the call and the reservations herself.  It was a humbling thing to have women follow our instructions and arrange to meet a stranger on a street corner near a certain motel in a distant city, trusting us that they would be safe with a real ob-gyn trained doctor who was taking this risk to help them.

I sent women to Philadelphia, where there were ob-gyn residents from Lafayette Hospital who were working with us to provide this care.

I remember the stories.  One college student came with her boyfriend.  They planned to get married after graduation, but her father had recently had a heart attack, and she was afraid it would kill him if he learned that she had gotten pregnant. There was the distraught married woman whose daughter had been born while her husband was in Viet Nam.  She had immediately gotten pregnant again when he returned, but apparently suffering from PTSD, he paid little or no attention to her or to their little daughter and spent most of his time out at bars drinking and getting drunk.  Unfortunately, there was no way I could help her, because she was already at 20 weeks and past the cut-off time for a safe illegal abortion.

This was a cause that I was willing to go to jail for, if necessary.  But I worked carefully at keeping our records private, because I did not want to endanger my brother clergymen who were working with us.  I had a Presbyterian clergy friend in another state who was arrested and put on trial for counseling women on abortion, but when Roe v Wade was passed, the trial was stopped.  I am grateful to him for his courage.

In 1970, the New York State Legislature voted to permit legal abortion, which many of us had worked actively to support. The Presbytery of Albany had joined with me and our Church and Society Committee to vote in favor of legalizing abortion, and calling on the legislature and governor to do so.  A group of older white-haired women had come to support me with pickets and protest signs in front of the Presbytery the day we voted, because they knew what illegal abortions were about and told stories of packing a girl’s vagina with rags and other attempts at ending pregnancies in days gone by.  And they called the local TV station to come and film their picket signs at the meeting!

I organized the Rensselaer County Committee on Abortion Law Reform, and used it to spread information and encourage support.  I started speaking before church groups, women’s groups and service organizations, who were very interested in hearing a woman minister, a total rarity in those days.  I even spoke to a Roman Catholic women’s group, who said they had never heard anyone give a single reason in favor of abortion.  My own state assemblyman told me, with a judge listening, that we shouldn’t try to get rid of illegal abortion, because where else could he take an 18 year old if he accidentally got her pregnant?

After NY State legalized abortion, the doctors wanted our Clergy Consultation Service to continue counseling pregnant women and taking care of helping them.  But we felt our work should change, and we started asking hospitals to permit abortions in their facilities.  I worked with the Leonard Hospital in North Troy to approve allowing abortions to be performed there.

However, the movement to provide abortions mainly in specialized clinics was soon underway, and following Roe v Wade in 1973, that became the norm.  I became active in RCRC, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and served as Secretary of the New York Metropolitan RCRC and later the New York State RCRC.  I did All Options Counseling Training for seminary students and was on call for special cases where personal counseling was needed in difficult family situations.  The years since then have seen constant battles to keep clinics open, to protect clinic patients from protestors, to support Planned Parenthood and RCRC, and to fight legal attempts to make abortions difficult to obtain.

In the years I was working to make abortion legal in New York State, a lawyer friend of mine asked me what I would do next after we got abortion legalized.  I told him we would work on getting hospitals to approve letting men have vasectomies without requiring that they have lots of children before they would do it.  I explained to him how much easier and simpler it is for men to have vasectomies than for women to have major surgery to tie their tubes.   He was on the Board of a local hospital, so he got them to change their policy.

There has always been more to do.

The Rev Margaret E (“Peggy”) Howland was the 12th woman ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church on October 19, 1958 and first woman in the PC(USA) to serve as pastor of a congregation of more than 200 members, the Woodside Church in Troy, New York.  Peggy is honorably retired member of Hudson River Presbytery and active involved in Park Lake Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Florida.

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