Before Roe v. Wade, U of M activists worked with clergy to connect students with abortion care

New research delves into school’s history with abortion rights movement

By: - October 1, 2022 3:43 am

A student receiving services from the University of Michigan Task Force on Problem Pregnancy Counseling in the early 1970s. | Courtesy photo

“So! You’ve just found out your [sic] pregnant,” Andrea Way, an abortion counselor, wrote in the September 1972 edition of Her-Self, a feminist newspaper published in Ann Arbor from 1972 through 1977.

“Suppose that you’re one of the happy minority – one of those who can easily support and love a much-wanted child,” Way continued in a column headlined, “Any Woman Can.” “You should still see your doctor. But suppose you’re really in no position to have a kid? You have no money. You have no room. You just can’t quit your job yet. You hate kids. You have a problem, yes, but you no longer have a dire crisis on your hands.”

Way was referring to the fact that, instead of being forced to give birth or spend what amounted to thousands of dollars in today’s money for a potentially unsafe and then-illegal abortion in Michigan, pregnant people could access abortion care through a group that formed in Michigan in the late 1960s and was in large part made up of religious leaders deeply entrenched in the work of social justice. In the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide in 1973, this group of religious leaders would help thousands of people travel from Michigan to New York City to receive the abortion care that was then legal in New York.

A newspaper clipping of the September 1972 edition of Her-Self, a feminist newspaper published in Ann Arbor in the 1970s. Headlined “Any Woman Can,” the column delved into the topic of accessing an abortion in Michigan before it was legal in the state. | Courtesy photo

It’s the work of this group that a new University of Michigan research report delves into in an effort to explore how U of M supported students, faculty and staff seeking abortion care prior to it being legal in Michigan. 

“Before Roe: The University of Michigan’s Task Force for Problem Pregnancy Counseling,” written and researched by Rianna Johnson-Levy, a Ph.D student in women’s and gender studies at the University of Michigan, dives into the history of abortion access, and the advocacy surrounding it, at a time when the legality of abortion is once again in a precarious position in Michigan and across the country after right-wing Supreme Court justices ended the right to abortion nationwide. Johnson-Levy’s work was conducted with support from the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan.

After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in June, the legality of abortion fell to each of the states. In Michigan, there is a law from 1931 still on the books that allows for felony manslaughter charges against abortion providers. That law is currently not being enforced as challenges to it from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Planned Parenthood move through the courts. In November’s election, Michigan voters will vote on whether to enshrine the right to abortion in the state Constitution with Proposal 3.

“In the coming months, the University [of Michigan] will need to continue to respond to new developments in the state’s laws on abortion while remaining conscious of the needs of the university community, Michigan Medicine and the vulnerable communities the University serves,” Johnson-Levy wrote in her report that was officially released last month. “There is precedent for this moment in the late sixties and early seventies when the University supported students, faculty, and staff seeking abortion care before it was legal in the state.”

For Johnson-Levy, who grew up in Ann Arbor, the fact this movement existed and aided thousands of people in need of abortion care lends some hope to the current instability around the legality of abortion in Michigan. It means that, even in the face of abortion being illegal in Michigan in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a group of people – led in part by ministers and rabbis – dedicated to individuals being able to choose their own health care, the graduate student noted. 

Rianna Johnson-Levy | Courtesy photo

And, Johnson-Levy said, it points to the fact that, even if abortion did become illegal again in Michigan, there are worn paths to abortion care. They may be somewhat overgrown at this point, but they exist.

“One of the most important takeaways from my research is the commitment and the certainty [with which] the University of Michigan administrators felt that providing abortion referral care to students was an integral part of their job and their responsibility to the students that they served,” Johnson-Levy said.

Like colleges and universities across the state, University of Michigan and its hospital, Michigan Medicine, have said they will provide abortion care as long as it is legal. In a statement released June 24, the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, a long list of leaders from Michigan Medicine wrote, “Many of the patients we see are diagnosed with fetal anomalies or experience other complications that make ongoing pregnancy and giving birth dangerous, or they have serious underlying illnesses or other needs that make abortion care in an outpatient facility not possible.”

At Michigan Medicine, the leaders go on to say, “we primarily provide abortions for patients who need hospital-level care. Our commitment is to be there for those who need the specialized care we can offer.”

‘It’s our responsibility to make a change’

After nearly a century of abortion being illegal across the United States – Johnson-Levy’s report notes that by 1880, every state legally restricted or criminalized abortion following a national campaign by the American Medical Association – the several years leading up to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973 saw significant movement around abortion rights. 

While Michigan was still governed by its 1931 law, there was a growing group of pastors and rabbis in the state and across the country who were active in and inspired by the Civil Rights movement and saw a chance for progress when it came to abortion access in the late 1960s and early 1970s. 

The University of Michigan Task Force on Problem Pregnancy Counseling – the school-based group that worked with various community partners to connect students with abortion care – found its origins in New York City, Johnson-Levy explains in her research paper. In 1967, religious officials representing a variety of Christian denominations and branches of the Jewish faith formed the “Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion.” At the time, abortion was illegal in New York – the state would legalize it in 1970 – except for abortions that were deemed medically necessary. 

For the clergy, many of whom had fought for racial integration in New York City schools and in the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern United States, the difference between a medically necessary abortion and an unnecessary one was not based on health or science, but rather on race and class. 

To read Johnson-Levy’s full report, click here.

At the time of its founding, the group noted that “poor women and women of color in New York state were left vulnerable to unclean, exploitative abortion providers and unsafe self-induced abortions,” Johnson-Levy writes. In 1965, 94% of abortion deaths in New York City occurred among Black and Puerto Rican women. In other words, white, wealthy individuals could access safe abortions far more often than people of color and lower-income individuals.

The Rev. Howard Moody, founder of the clergy consultation movement, wrote in 1973 that the group formed because “it seemed to us only right that the counseling, encouragement, and assistance which women needed under this unjust law should come from that institution, the Christian church, so responsible for the origins and perpetuation of that law.”

Johnson-Levy noted she was “really struck” by that idea. 

“He said the religious institutions we work for are in part responsible for these laws and for the persecution that women and doctors are feeling so it’s our responsibility to make a change and turn the tide,” she said. 

“They had particular power in this moment to lend their moral authority to people who were suffering and in need,” Johnson-Levy continued.

The rest of the country found out about the the New York City-based group through a 1967 article in the New York Times, “Clergymen Offer Abortion Advice: 21 Ministers and Rabbis Form New Group – Will Propose Alternatives.” After that, clergy-based groups working to expand abortion access would go on to form in California, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. By 1969, the “Michigan Clergy for Problem Pregnancy Counseling” began referring women to New York City for abortion care. That group referred almost 15,000 women for abortions in 1970 alone.

In the coming months, the University (of Michigan) will need to continue to respond to new developments in the state’s laws on abortion while remaining conscious of the needs of the university community, Michigan Medicine and the vulnerable communities the University serves. There is precedent for this moment in the late sixties and early seventies when the University supported students, faculty and staff seeking abortion care before it was legal in the state.

– Rianna Johnson-Levy

Once the clergy consultation movement took root in Michigan, an Episcopal priest who had been active in protests against the Vietnam War and was supportive of the Black Action Movement at the University of Michigan, the Rev. Bob Hauert, became the movement’s coordinator in the Ann Arbor area. 

Hauert joined forces with the counseling director of the University of Michigan’s Office of Religious Affairs, Leonard Scott, and various counselors, clinics and community organizations from throughout the university and Ann Arbor to form the Task Force on Problem Pregnancy Counseling. Members of that group would go on to vet abortion clinics and services in New York City, negotiate affordable rates for students and other community members, and work with pregnant individuals to ensure they would be able to access the necessary abortion care. 

It became, Way of Her-Self magazine wrote, possible to fly on a plane to New York in the morning, receive an abortion and make it home to Michigan in time for work the next day. 

“At one time the concept of abortion was surrounded by an aura of grease and grime, of canvassing the poorer sections of town verbally on your hands and knees, looking for the proverbial little old lady with her knitting needle,” Way wrote. “Face it, ladies: that time is gone forever.” 

This work to expand access to abortion wasn’t without risks, Johnson-Levy noted. 

“The thing I find intriguing about this whole story is that what the University of Michigan was doing was legal under Michigan law, but they were working with people through the problem pregnancy counseling [movement] that were facing prosecution, being arrested and wiretapped,” she said. “It’s a complicated moment.”

The university also had to face vehement critics of their decision to provide abortion referral services, Johnson-Levy noted. In her research report, the author includes a letter from Scott responding to an alumnus who was furious about the task force’s work. In that letter, Scott “talks pretty explicitly about believing himself that abortion takes a life but that he and other counselors he worked with were committed to the idea that women and their partners could make moral decisions of their own and that the beliefs and ethics of one person should not trump another’s,” Johnson-Levy said. 

University of Michigan | Andrew Roth

“I am particularly inspired by Len Scott and some of these clergy because I think we’ve moved to this point in history where obviously abortion is so divisive and has come to fit very neatly into much larger political, moral and religious ideologies,” Johnson-Levy said, adding that one of the most important aspects of her research is “a call for independent thinking and for individuals to really determine for themselves what role they want to play in helping others and in being empathetic and caring.”

Once the Supreme Court decided Roe with a 7-2 vote, the group that had been working to refer individuals for abortion care in Ann Arbor were “very involved” in helping to set up abortion clinics in Southeast Michigan, Johnson-Levy explained. 

“When laws change quickly and there’s a lot of demand, the clinics that were set up were not fully prepared for the services they needed to provide,” so the U of M task force members traveled to New York City to learn about what they could do to meet the needs in their home state.  

As people read Johnson-Levy’s research, the graduate student said she hopes it will serve as “an educational tool” for starting conversations about abortion access.  

“The university has done this before,” she said. “It can do the right thing again. It can help its students and the Ann Arbor community again.”

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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