I thought about Dr. Curtis Boyd when I heard that the Supreme Court greenlit Texas’s unprecedented abortion restrictions. In the 1960s, Dr. Boyd lived in a small town in southern Texas. There, he provided illegal abortions to thousands of women who traveled across the United States to see him. Some of the women who found their way to Boyd were destitute. All were desperate for competent medical care. And Boyd, driven by his religious convictions and his compassion, helped them. After Roe, Boyd opened abortion clinics in Texas and New Mexico. For over six decades now, Curtis Boyd has continued to help countless people across the Southwest access safe and dignified reproductive health care.
The Texas abortion restriction, known as SB 8, targets providers like Dr. Boyd and the people whom he serves. SB 8 prohibits abortion after six weeks, a timeline that ensures that it is too late for most to terminate pregnancies. This legislation, however, is not a return to the pre-Roe era where stigma, medical danger, and costly medical procedures were the norm. Instead, the Texas legislation is a break from the past, replacing uneven legal enforcement and quiet communal tolerance with a state-sponsored and citizen-enforced dragnet intent on catching abortion providers and any who aid abortion seekers. Now, anti-abortion activists from across the United States are empowered and rewarded to surveille and enforce abortion restrictions in Texas.
While it’s yet too early to predict the fate of Texas’s punitive law, Boyd’s history reminds all of us that coercive laws don’t stop abortion. Rather, such laws change the cost, meaning, and conditions under which abortions are provided. And even as abortion opponents loudly proclaim they are acting by divine mandate, people of faith like Boyd remain on the frontlines of this battle for reproductive healthcare.
I interviewed Boyd while researching my book Making Choice Sacred (forthcoming from UNC Press), which tells the story of liberal religious struggles for reproductive freedom since the 1930s. Dr. Boyd was a Unitarian Universalist, and his denomination took part in a wider religious conversation about the grim consequences of laws that restricted legal abortions to women whose lives were endangered by their pregnancies. For example, The Christian Century, the banner publication of mainline Protestantism, reported in January of 1961 that “archaic state and church laws, drive nearly a million American mothers each year to abortion mills where approximately 5,000 of them die at the hands of bungling quacks and filthy midwives.” This editorial was among many religious reports contributing to mounting concerns that millions of women were seeking out illegal abortions and countless numbers of these abortion-seekers were being injured.
By 1963, Unitarians condemned restrictive abortion laws as an “affront to human life and dignity.” And Boyd’s own minister enlisted him to help identify reliable abortion providers in the United States and Mexico to which clergy could refer abortion seekers. What Boyd found was that medically competent providers were few and far between and often prohibitively expensive. Soon, an interfaith group of Texas clergy convinced Boyd, who was a practicing physician, that he should provide abortions and vowed to stand by him should he be arrested.
After he opened the doors of his small office in rural Texas, women arrived in droves. Referred by pro-choice clergy, they came, he recalls, by “bus, by train, by hitchhiking, by car, however they could—Volkswagen bus, very common. They came however they could get there. They came from Minnesota, from South Dakota, from New York, from Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, all around. They came from all over the United States.” Boyd worked long hours rather than turn away women who had no other options. Neighbors and local authorities largely ignored Boyd, who provided abortions without interruption in the years leading up to legalization.
“When you’re looking back, how can this be evil?” he asked me rhetorically. “How can this be evil when this woman is making a decision that seems to be the best for her personally, for her family, for the children she has, the children she hopes to have, and for society? That seems like an ethical decision-making process, a moral decision-making process.”
This constant medical service transformed Boyd’s understanding of what abortion meant and continues to mean. “Abortion services are not about abortion, primarily, for us. It’s about women’s rights in society, women achieving equality,” he recalled recently. An abortion prohibition, he explained, “is where they most clearly say we’re taking over your body, we’re taking over your decision-making. You’re not going to be able to make these decisions for you, your family, or for society. Society’s going to make them for you and impose them on you.”
It is unclear to me what will happen in the coming days to Dr. Boyd and other providers as they try to serve Texans who find themselves unwillingly pregnant. But what horrors will SB 8’s regime of reproductive coercion bring to term? In addition to creating a public health crisis, the new legislation enlists anti-abortion zealots to peer into windows and wombs. History teaches us that restrictive abortion laws do not act as prophylactics against unwanted pregnancies. They do not magically transform unwanted pregnancies into wanted ones. And such laws unevenly stop determined abortion-seekers from taking control of their own bodies and futures. But never before has there been a law that has incentivized this scale and scope of policing against supporters of reproductive choice. We are being pushed off a precipice with no sense of how far and fast we will fall.
In the past, physicians of conscience and people of faith mobilized to help physicians provide and abortion seekers receive compassionate care. Their legacy lives on in organizations like Ohio’s Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and the National Abortion Federation. You can support them using the links above.