The front of a postcard with an illustration of two stylized children in bonnets sitting in a field under a rainbow.

“Our Moral Obligation:” The Pastors That Counseled in Pre-Roe South Carolina

On December 8, 1971, a Presbyterian pastor in Greenville, SC counseled three women on their “problem pregnancies,” ultimately connecting them with clinical abortion providers. The first woman was a white, 21-year-old university student. Her relationship with her boyfriend had ended that October, and she believed abortion was, to use her words, a “last ditch contraception.” The pastor referred her to Women’s Services in New York, which was one of the clinics that opened when the NY state legislature legalized abortion in 1970.1 In cases like this, South Carolina pastors scheduled appointments, arranged transportation, and even secured funding for women to travel to New York for regulated, legal procedures. When inter-state travel was not an option, pastors would connect women with licensed medical doctors within South Carolina for clandestine abortions.

The second patron was a 23-year-old divorced white woman who already had a three-year-old son. She was trying to reconcile her marriage and wanted to have more children, but was having intercourse with another man and feared the repercussions of either partner learning of her pregnancy. The pastor arranged transportation and scheduled an appointment for her in New York.2

The third woman the pastor saw that day was an 11-year-old African American girl whose father believed she was “coerced” into intercourse by an 18-year-old boy. The pastor determined that the girl and her family were “too hysterical for New York,” and scheduled an abortion with someone named “Dickson” at the local Greenville General Hospital.3

Digitized copy of one of the "problem pregnancy" recommendations.
South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service For Problem Pregnancy Records, Accession number 66 in the Winthrop University archives.

Days like December 8th, 1971 were common for pastors working for an organization called the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies (SCCCS). In the years leading to Roe v. Wade (1973), this group of multi-denominational clergymen were active in helping women in South Carolina navigate and procure abortion services. We know this from archival files of SCCCS clergy case notes, called “Questionnaires” for “problem pregnancies,” now housed at Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives.

The SCCCS records serve as a reminder that illegality, even in politically conservative “bible belt” states such as South Carolina, did not prevent women of diverse backgrounds from seeking pregnancy terminations. These records demonstrate, moreover, that anti-abortion sentiments and religiosity have not been mutually exclusive in the recent past, as many contemporary pro-life campaigns would suggest. Pastors in the SCCCS believed it was their “moral obligation” to counsel women with “problem pregnancies,” and to provide viable, alternative options to “back alley” abortions.

The Service

The SCCCS was not unique to South Carolina, but instead part of the National Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, which originated in New York in 1967 and spread to 35 states by 1973.4 The South Carolina service began with 35 clergymen in December 1970 and by May 1972, had grown to 68 ministers involving “eleven denominations, well distributed throughout the state.”5 As with the national organization, ranks of the South Carolina group included many Protestant Christians, Jewish rabbis, and at least one Roman Catholic minister.6 Wiley Cooper, a former member of the South Carolina branch, revealed in a recent oral history interview that the SCCCS maintained connections with the national organization, but saw their role as unique to the state of South Carolina. The group purposefully, for example, distinguished itself by using the phase “problem pregnancies,” instead of “abortions.”

Newspaper clipping with a headline that reads "Clergymen offer abortion advice"
Newspaper clipping from the New York Times. (Little Green Footballs)

Cooper’s recounting of the origins of the SCCCS provides an interesting window into the broader conceptualization of abortion services in the South:

“A group of us, first in Greenville County and then in Columbia and across the state, decided that girls and women who needed help, needed counseling, needed a place that they could go where the decision had not already been decided in advance. Especially, they needed a place where pastors would counsel with them honestly, without imposing our point of view, our theological understanding on the women or their families. So, a group of mostly younger, but not all younger pastors, encouraged by two or three OB-GYNs developed the Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancy. It deliberately was not on ‘abortion.’ It was on ‘problem pregnancy.’ Because, if you said ‘abortion,’ you’ve not only got yourself into an unnecessary political and theological debate, but you had already by your name made your decision.”7

Cooper explained that while this nominal distinction empowered women to make their own decisions regarding “problem pregnancies,” the majority that he counselled were seeking information on abortions. Of course, long before the SCCCS, women in South Carolina, like their counterparts across the United States, found ways to terminate unwanted pregnancies, ingesting herbal abortifacients and eliciting a variety of lay and professional medical providers for illegal procedures.8 The clandestine nature of criminal abortions makes it difficult to pass a generalized judgment on the efficacy and safety of these extra-legal practices. However, the lack of municipal regulation left women vulnerable to inconsistent fees and botched procedures, which, we can glean from local court records, resulted in postoperative infections, hemorrhaging, and sometimes death.

A 1960 criminal court case involving the death of Greenville resident, Madge M. exemplifies these dangers. Madge’s boyfriend had a “buddy,” Larry Meeks, who did not have a professional medical background, but assured her that he knew what he was doing. He borrowed tools from a friend and then had difficulty inserting a rubber tube into her cervix to cause the abortion. During the procedure, Madge screamed out in pain and then lost consciousness, which she never regained. Meeks refused the boyfriend’s request to take her immediately to the hospital, and instead brought her to a neighbor, Dr. Budove. Budove “looked at her and felt her pulse and said that [they] had better get her to the hospital,” where she died shortly after arrival.9

Exterior of a brick building, two stories, taken from a parking lot.
Greenville Presbyterian Church, Donalds SC. (Upstateherd/Wikimedia Commons)

Realizing the potential for danger in an unregulated medical marketplace for illegal abortion, SCCCS members made it their mission not to impose theological judgment, but to connect women with licensed physicians in South Carolina, New York, and sometimes, Georgia.

Women Seeking Options

It is difficult to tell the exact number of women that were counseled by the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service. The 132 case notes left by one of the 68 members suggests they had a large impact on the state. I have approached the contents of these “Questionnaires” with caution, as they were authored by a male pastor, rather than the women he counseled. The voices of women wanting to terminate their pregnancies have often been stifled and silenced by the archive. However, these records are a vital and rare glimpse into the important history of women seeking abortion services in pre-Roe South Carolina.

Table 1 reveals the rich demographic variety of women within the sample of SCCCS counseling sessions. While the majority of abortion seekers were between the ages of 19 and 25, single, and white, there were substantial numbers of married women, African American women, and those old and young. Class-based numerical estimations for the South Carolina group are harder to provide, as the counselor did not record annual incomes for the women or their families. However, there were 11 cases in which he had to elicit financial aid from outside organizations or appeal to clinics for reduced pricing in order for women to afford abortions. In contrast, the counselor documented several cases of women who enjoyed enough financial privilege to attend college, and others with careers as secretaries, teachers, and nurses, which provides some clue into the class-based dimensions of illegal abortions in this period.

Table 1 [Age]. Age, Marriage, and Race in SCCCS “Questionnaires,” 1970-1972.
Age Number of Women (Out of 132) Percentage of Women
18 and under 46 35%
19-25 52 40%
26-35 23 18%
Over 35 8 7%
Table 1 [Marital status]. Age, Marriage, and Race in SCCCS “Questionnaires,” 1970-1972.
Marital Status Number of Women (Out of 132) Percentage of Women
Single (Including divorce) 90 68%
Married (Including engagement and separation) 42 32%
Table 1 [Race]. Age, Marriage, and Race in SCCCS “Questionnaires,” 1970-1972.
Race Number of Women (Out of 132) Percentage of Women
Black 27 21%
White 102 77%
Unspecified 3 2%

While the demographic data above helps generalize larger trends, each of these women had unique, personal elements to their stories that data simply cannot convey. For example, on January 7, 1972, a 21-year-old black woman made an appointment for an abortion in New York. Her husband was a teacher, and she was in her last semester of college to also become a teacher. She tried using a cervical shield for birth control, but it failed, and she feared that a baby would bring financial hardship on her young family and its aspirations.10

On July 19, 1972, a 40-year-old white woman also requested an appointment in New York. She said her marriage was “good,” but she did not want any more children and tried an intrauterine Loop (an older form of IUD) for contraception without success.11 These two women were both married with failed contraception attempts, but otherwise had very different demographic backgrounds and reasons for aborting. Compressing their histories into statistics fails to elicit the historical empathy needed to understand their unique stories.

The SCCCS records show that scholars cannot neatly profile women seeking pregnancy terminations before Roe v. Wade. Abortion was a choice many faced regardless of age, marital status, wealth, or race, and illegality did not hinder their propensity to make that choice. These records also complicate contemporary pro-life movements, which pin religiosity (particularly southern Christianity) against a woman’s right to choose. On the contrary, one postcard demonstrates that in pre-Roe South Carolina there were at least 68 clergymen across denominations who believed it was their “moral obligation” or “pastoral duty” to help women obtain safe, regulated procedures.12

A postcard filled with handwritten text.
Back of a postcard from a female student to Alan Elmore, January 23,1974, SCCCS Records. No. 66. Photograph courtesy of the Louise Pettus Archives & Special Collections at Winthrop University, Rock Hill, SC)

The postcard is from a female student to SCCCS counselor, Alan Elmore after he arranged for her to have an abortion through a clinic in Atlanta. She thanked him for his compassion during this “most difficult time” and said, “it’s people like you that are living examples to me that God loves me.”13

The compassion demonstrated by the SCCCS is a key component in dignifying women’s reproductive decisions, which is missing from the current state legislature. On April 20, 2019, the South Carolina House of Representatives passed the heartbeat bill, which bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks. Since many women do not know they are pregnant until after the six-week mark, this legislation would severely reduce legal abortion accessibility once more. The bill must pass in the state Senate before becoming law, and even then, the precedent set by Roe v. Wade would render it unconstitutional. Upholding the monumental 1973 decision is, therefore, imperative in continuing the work of the SCCCS and other advocates of safe and compassionate options for women in South Carolina and across the United States.

Notes

  1. Dec. 8, 1971- 1, “Clergy Consultation Service Questionnaires,” 1970-1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  2. Dec. 8, 1971- 3, “Clergy Consultation Service Questionnaires,” 1970-1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  3. Dec. 8, 1971- 2, “Clergy Consultation Service Questionnaires,” 1970-1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  4. Doris Andrea Dirks and Patricia A. Relf, To Offer Compassion: A History of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (Madison, London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2017): 3. Return to text.
  5. Jack Crandall and H. Alan Elmore, “Correspondence draft to physicians,” May 1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  6. Wiley Cooper, transcript of an oral history interview conducted 2018 by Madeleine Ware, The Oral History Program, The Citadel Military College: Charleston, SC. Return to text.
  7. Wiley Cooper oral history, 2018. Return to text.
  8. This information comes from collective analyses of fifty criminal court cases reported in South Carolina newspapers and in trial records between the years 1872 and 1972, which is part of an ongoing project with the College of Charleston Women’s Health Research Team.Return to text.
  9. The State v. Larry Darr Meeks and William David Hellams, No. 6-844, State of South Carolina, County of Greenville, Roll No. 430-87, (Sept. 1960). Return to text.
  10. January 7, 1972, “Clergy Consultation Service Questionnaires,” 1970-1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  11. July 19, 1972, “Clergy Consultation Service Questionnaires,” 1970-1972. SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  12. “Moral Obligation Cited,” December 8, 1970, SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.
  13. Postcard from a female student to Alan Elmore, January 23,1974, SCCCS Records. No. 66, Winthrop University Louise Pettus Archives and Special Collections: Rock Hill, SC. Return to text.

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