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Reproductive Rights, the Role of Religion and the History of Abortion Activism: A Roundtable Discussion

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We host a roundtable discussion on reproductive rights with Margaret Roberts, co-president of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson; Rabbi Dennis Ross, the director of Concerned Clergy for Choice; Rev. Donna Schaper, Senior Minister of the Judson Memorial Church; and Rev. Tom Davis, author of the book Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the capital of New York, Albany, where a thousand people are gathering today to talk about reproductive rights. Now, we’ll talk about the history of abortion activism in New York and around the nation.

I am joined by Margaret Roberts. She’s co-president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson, joining me here in Albany, as does Rabbi Dennis Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, where he coordinates an interfaith network of a thousand clergy in support of reproductive rights. In our firehouse studio in New York, we’re joined by Reverend Donna Schaper. She is Senior Minister of the Judson Memorial Church.

Well, I want to talk about what’s happening right now. Margaret Roberts, talk about the opening of a new Planned Parenthood center.

MARGARET ROBERTS: Well, at our Schenectady center, we recently built a new facility, and it’s been a wonderfully successful facility. And it was very exciting to have some clergy volunteer, actually propose that they come and bless our new building. And that was really a great event.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dennis Ross, you were — Rabbi Dennis Ross, you were there. Can you talk about what happened?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Well, clergy came forward from the community to offer words of prayer and blessing and gratitude for the opportunity for members of the community to obtain reproductive — quality reproductive healthcare in the future. I wasn’t there, but this is what happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And the response?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: The response from people who turn to Planned Parenthood and trust it for healthcare was overwhelmingly strong and positive. But, you know, different faiths have different teachings, and people can come to different conclusions, and some people did.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about why you have written an op-ed piece that’s going to appear in the local paper, why you had to defend the blessing of the clinic?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Well, in our op-ed, we are asserting the history, and the history is that clergy and Planned Parenthood have worked together very, very closely for generations here in the United States. We put it in writing to go on record so people see that what happened in Schenectady has been happening in the United States for decades.


RABBI DENNIS ROSS: That clergy have come forward to stand with women in their time of need to make sure that we have access to quality reproductive healthcare here in the United States. Our denominations, the Anglican Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and other religious bodies came forward decades ago saying that women need access to contraception, that we, as religious leaders, support and turn to Planned Parenthood, and we refer women and teens and people to Planned Parenthood for reproductive healthcare that they’re entitled to have in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to our guest in New York City in our firehouse studio, Reverend Donna Schaper, Senior Minister of the Judson Memorial Church. You go way back in time to before Roe v. Wade and clergy activism around, well, actually opening the first clinic. Can you talk about what happened then?

REV. DONNA SCHAPER: I’d be glad to. I do go way back on this. Before Roe v. Wade, there was a group of clergy organized, in a way, called Clergy Consultation. And I’m proud to say that my predecessor at Judson, the Reverend Howard Moody, was the founder of that organization. I happened to be in seminary in Chicago at that time, and it was my privilege to work for Clergy Consultation and to counsel women Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons from 4:00 to 8:00 in church basements to help them get to New York City to get an abortion, because it wasn’t legal in Illinois at that time. And so, we helped people who had never flown in an airplane before fly in an airplane. We helped people make moral choices about their lives and their families, and I was very proud to be a part of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, how did it happen? So you were in Chicago, you were in seminary, and you were — who were the women that were flying from Chicago to New York?

REV. DONNA SCHAPER: They were mostly poor women. They were mostly from the South Side of Chicago, because I was recruited to do this work by then-Chaplain Spencer Parsons of the University of Chicago. They were looking for women — I mean, most of the clergy who were involved at that time were men. And sometimes a woman needs a woman to talk to about what it means to have an abortion, what the procedure is. And for us, it was, again, a privilege to work with people, not to say, “Hey, you really ought to get on a plane and go to New York and have an abortion,” but “Tell me what’s going on.”

The kind of stories we would hear is, “I’ve got six children. My husband left me three years ago. I’m working two jobs. I really don’t think I can be a good mother to this child.” People would cry. People would be afraid. People would come in with — it cost $300 then. I don’t know why. It was $300. They’d come in with a pile of money and count out the last $18, and sometimes they’d have $298, and you’d find yourself fishing in your purse, just “Here. You don’t have to go begging for the money to do this thing that seems to you to be right for your other children and for yourself.”

AMY GOODMAN: Now, abortion was not legal in Chicago, even in doing this preparation work and helping women get on planes to come to New York, where they could have an abortion. You were, other seminarians, arrested; your offices, raided?

REV. DONNA SCHAPER: Yes, we were. We, I believe, were arrested twice. I think that Chaplain Parsons was arrested quite a few more times than that. We did not think we were doing anything illegal. We were sending people to a place where abortion was legal. We were part of the movement that wanted to make abortion legal, because we had seen — we talked to people who had tried abortions through backstreet kind of operations, and they were hurt. They were in physical danger, in trouble still. And so, when they came to us, they were saying, “I don’t want to do that again this time.” These are people who had tried more than once to abort. And so, we were getting them to safe and legal places. Now, obviously, the government didn’t think that that was the case. I would call it a pre-legal situation.

AMY GOODMAN: But in New York, the clinic, the reproductive health clinic that provided abortion, was run by the clergy?

REV. DONNA SCHAPER: Yes, indeed, in the beginning. And the clergy were very, very — especially Howard Moody — were very concerned about how to get the right providers to come in. When New York’s law became legal, you know, you can imagine, it was big business. All of a sudden, they knew there were going to be a lot of people who were going to need the procedure and who were going to be able to pay for it.

The clergy were extremely effective at that point, although they would probably argue not as effective as they wanted to be, in keeping the price low, in keeping women from being ripped off, in understanding that abortion is a safe procedure. I have had one myself. It does not — it’s not a big deal, medically speaking. It can be done in a simple, caring way, where there are very few aftereffects physically. And what the clergy wanted to do was to make this medical procedure safe and inexpensive, as it should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Tom Davis joins us on the phone, as well. He is author of the book Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances, a retired chaplain from Skidmore College . You write in your book about the importance of religion coming down on the side of reproductive rights, Reverend Davis, because it was being defined by the Catholic Church as sacred versus non-sacred. Can you explain what you mean by “sacred work”?

REV. TOM DAVIS: Well, in biblical terms, the central command is to love the neighbor, and in social terms, that love always has to be translated into justice, and justice is very complicated sometimes. But when Margaret Sanger began and sought the support of the clergy, for example, typically in one year, 1916, when she began, three million American women had babies, and 18,411 of them died in childbirth. Now, that wasn’t just due to the medical care of the times. It was due to the fact that many of those women didn’t want to be in childbirth. But the law said birth control was illegal and that anyone who supported a woman was in trouble. And that law was not a joke. People were sent to prison under the Comstock laws.

In time, Margaret Sanger was able to persuade the clergy in a lot of denominations to move away from their somewhat in a state of indifference and become supportive of a woman’s right not to have children if she did not want to have it. The Catholic Church fought against birth control coming into public hospitals and welfare agencies all through the 1920s through the 1950s and ’60s. And in each of those fights, the Protestant clergy and Jewish rabbis lined up on the side of making contraception legal and making it accessible in public facilities. It was long struggles, but they finally were able to prevail.

AMY GOODMAN: In religious Jewish activism, Rabbi Ross, where are the divisions? What do you most deal with?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Well, within Judaism, there appears to be a very, very strong consensus that the health and the safety of the woman has to come first, which is why, in a sense, so many clergy are coming forward to support Governor Spitzer’s Reproductive Health initiative, the act that you talked about a little bit earlier with JoAnn Smith, because this is a law that will protect the health and safety of women in a very difficult political and legal time here in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to what is happening today. Margaret Roberts, what is the level of protest you’re facing at your clinic in Mohawk Hudson?

MARGARET ROBERTS: Well, we have — at our Utica site, we have protesters every day of the week all day into the evening, and people who are trying to come into office have to walk up a driveway, down a sidewalk and then up the front steps into the office. So there’s no way that anyone can come in to get reproductive healthcare without having to go through a gauntlet of protesters. We’re working to change that. We have a capital campaign going, and we plan to change that entrance so that it’s off private property in the back of the building. But that remains to be done in 2009.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the anti-choice activism met by pro-choice activism outside in the way of the past, there being guides, people taking the women in?

MARGARET ROBERTS: When we need that, we do that, and we do that at some of our centers. Utica, we have found that the protesters behave more badly when we have escorts. And so, we certainly watch every second what’s going on outside of our building and make sure that our patients and visitors are safe, but we don’t necessarily use escorts all day.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel safe? Do the other people who work at the clinic feel safe?

MARGARET ROBERTS: We take security precautions. I’ll give you a few examples of things, quick examples, that have happened to me. There was a time a number of years ago, right after the — I believe it was in Alabama, where a security guard was killed and a nurse was severely maimed at a reproductive healthcare clinic. And two days after that attack, one of our lovely protesters trespassed on our property, came into the building and left a package, a wrapped package in the foyer. And the attack in Alabama had been by a bomb that someone had left. And so, there was — I mean, the point of this was to intimidate. So I was called down, and I grabbed the package, which probably wasn’t too smart. The people were still out front, so I took it out and opened it with them. So if there was something in there, we would all go, not just I.

Another example, we had an ecumenical service following another murder. The service was done by a variety of clergy, including a Catholic church, and this was at a Catholic church. I was blocked from going into that service by some protesters and actually shoved. When I backed off and tried to go around, I was shoved again. And the third time I backed off and tried to go around and a police officer came along, stepped between, and the protester shoved the police officer, so he was arrested.

There also have been wanted posters tacked on telephone poles around Utica with my name on it, and protesters have been to my home also. So let’s just say that those of us who are in the public eye have to be careful, and we take precautions.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do this?

MARGARET ROBERTS: Because someone has to stand up for the rights of women to have access to reproductive healthcare. I am the first to respect everyone’s right to free speech, but there has to be a line over which people cannot cross, protesters cannot cross, because it absolutely is not constitutional for someone to impose their beliefs on someone else and prevent them from getting access to healthcare that they need.

AMY GOODMAN: Right after the September 11th attacks, I remember — well, we had not only the attacks, but then the anthrax attacks, particularly on journalists, the sending in, and there was the hoax letters, but of course that was very frightening, as well. In talking to someone at Planned Parenthood and commenting on now the metal detectors, everything being checked for anthrax, and this worker at Planned Parenthood saying, “Well, now you live the way we all live,” because at Planned Parenthood, they had something like a couple hundred letters that ended up being a hoax, but you never knew at the time, going through metal detectors at their offices. How has the Bush administration, in this period, defined terror? You have, of course, what we know as the war on terror, foreign terror. What about here at home and the issue of these — how many clinics are we talking about over time have been bombed? Are we talking about our attacks on clinics in the thousands?

MARGARET ROBERTS: No, there have been —-

AMY GOODMAN: In the United States.

MARGARET ROBERTS: There have been several murders. There have been a couple of attempted bombs. There’s been arson. There has been the bombing that I talked about in the South. I can’t give you a number without looking it up, but -—

AMY GOODMAN: You have just ten — almost ten years ago now, Dr. Barnett Slepian, not far from here, in Buffalo —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- the ob/gyn who was gunned down in his home with his wife and his two kids. He had been the abortion provider in the area.

MARGARET ROBERTS: Yes. And I can tell you that our abortion providers are very careful, as well. We all have to be. I can’t tell you how the Bush administration defines “terrorism,” because, to my mind, everything that we have talked about here is absolutely terrorism. It’s domestic terrorism, and it is terribly wrong, and it has to be dealt with. And part of the way to do that is to try to teach tolerance in our country. And that is something that I’m not sure has happened with the Bush administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Tom Davis, within the Christian denominations, do you see the approach changing? Are there any bridges even being built with the Catholic bishops, with the Catholic Conference, the Catholic establishment?

REV. TOM DAVIS: From time to time, there have been attempts to find common ground and to work on areas where things could work together. I don’t think they’ve been terribly successful, but I think, you know, people continue to seek it out. From our side, we thought that —-

AMY GOODMAN: Well, isn’t there a difference between the establishment, the Catholic establishment, and laypeople? Isn’t, even in the Catholic community, the majority of Catholics pro-choice?

REV. TOM DAVIS: I believe so. And I know a recent poll I just saw said that 63 percent of Roman Catholics believe the Church’s teachings on birth control are wrong. And polls and surveys of the way people have voted consistently show that, as you say, the average Catholic lay voting population, whatever they think about abortion morally, generally believes that it should be made legal.

AMY GOODMAN: Last words, as we move on to our last segment, where we’ll be joined by young teen counselors, high school peer counselors who talk with their classmates about reproductive health and reproductive rights.

MARGARET ROBERTS: Well, the teens are absolutely wonderful. And as we talk about our young people, in general, they are the future. And as more and more young people understand and appreciate the reproductive rights that we have in this country, I think that that is what is going to change the face of our country and reproductive healthcare and access.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Rabbi Dennis Ross, as the clergy get involved with these political issues, what you see is the responsibility of religious leaders now?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Well, the responsibility of religious leaders is seen in the support, for instance, that we’re providing for the Healthy Teens Act, which would provide comprehensive, age-appropriate, medically accurate and 100 percent truthful information about sex to teens. We believe in knowledge. We believe in people knowing about themselves and about their world. And the Healthy Teens Act would give teens that information and capacity that they urgently need.

AMY GOODMAN: At a national level?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Here in New York State, here in New York State.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do parents fit in?

RABBI DENNIS ROSS: Parents are an important part of the conversation. And these programs of comprehensive sex education are demonstrated to increase communication between parents and teens. So there’s certainly a -— that’s where it begins, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. We’ve been joined by Margaret Roberts, co-president, CEO, Planned Parenthood Mohawk Hudson in this area — we’re broadcasting from Albany, New York; Rabbi Dennis Ross, director of Concerned Clergy for Choice, the Education Fund of Family Planning Advocates in New York State; Reverend Tom Davis, his book is called Sacred Work; and finally, in our firehouse studio, where I usually am, back in New York City, Reverend Donna Schaper, she’s Senior Minister of the Judson Memorial Church.

And I want to give you the last word, Reverend Schaper. You started doing this work, what, some forty years ago?

REV. DONNA SCHAPER: Yeah, forty years ago. And I am very optimistic. I finally have real faith in the American people’s common sense. And making abortion illegal or this sort of chopping away at the right is just silly, and we’re going to get over it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you for being with us. This is Democracy Now!

When we come back, we’ll be joined by two high school students who’ve taken a bus for about five hours to come to this conference of about a thousand people in the capital of New York State, Albany.

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