My move to my first full-time parish at Tilton coincided with an important national decision—the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade. Legal abortion, formerly restricted to a few states and people of wealth, was then available through qualified medical facilities to every first and second trimester pregnant woman at relatively low cost. Two local obstetrician-gynecologists and workers in the county health department realized that they had a challenge on their hands. Who would provide counseling to the many women who now had a choice that they did not have previously?
The doctors and health workers did not feel ready or able to counsel at length with women who were facing new and legal options for which they had not prepared. The two OB-GYNE doctors disagreed between themselves about the morality of the new option. The health workers had mixed feelings. They turned to local ministers, asking for ministers and other counselors who were concerned to join in providing free, confidential, and non-directive counseling to women who desired it. Eight ministers and counselors responded.
The sticking point was the need to be non-directive, not to tell women what to do, not to impose a religious position, but to be willing to listen to different circumstances and needs and religious positions, explore feelings, provide information that was as objective as possible, and let women make their own final decisions. We all faced a steep learning curve, gathering information on all options that were available, including the medical facilities that provided abortions, procedures used, and costs involved, as well as the ethical and psychological considerations that women and their partners and families might face, whichever decision they made. Available resources for supporting a new child or adoption were necessary as well. Before we began, we developed a standard list of themes that would be a part of each session, and we revised it regularly.
The Problem Pregnancy Counseling Service continued for the next seven years. The counselors met together regularly to compare and enhance what we were learning, to recruit and replace counselors, and to support one another in emotional struggles. Not everyone of the original group could maintain the standards that we had imposed on ourselves, nor did new volunteers find them easy. At the end of that time, the polarization of abortion as an issue had grown to make non-directive counseling sound like ‘permissive’ or ‘encouraging’ to outsiders, so the counseling pool had shrunk and recruitment of new counselors became politicized. Women and doctors were more familiar with their own options as people had made their separate decisions and shared them with others. Fewer women were asking for counseling. We disbanded.
What had we learned as counselors? There was no standard case of a woman coming for counseling. Women’s motivations and circumstances varied enormously, and our awareness of heart-wrenching circumstances and difficult decisions expanded. Male partners were seldom available for support. We varied among ourselves in our ability to empathize or offer emotional support to those who came to us. We also had to deal with our own grief and depend on others for support. The politics of the issue made abortion more accessible to some and more difficult for many. What had long been an illegal underground activity remained part of an emotionally charged secret, as ‘underground’ as ever, although usually without the dire medical consequences of local illegal abortions.
None of us were immune to the personal threats that were directed at us from abortion absolutists. Yet all of us had people come to us later thanking us for help in their difficult times. We would face the same issues again wherever we were, but not with the frequency or intensity of those seven years.