A large part of freedom for women is their ability to decide if and when to be a mother,” says Rev. Finley Schaef. “Motherhood should not be an accident or something imposed upon women.”
Schaef was honored on the floor of the State Assembly on Tuesday, June 2 by members of the New York State Bipartisan Pro-Choice Legislative Caucus, who recognized Schaef’s groundbreaking work in establishing the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion in 1966, a nationwide network of clergy who referred women to physicians who would provide safe abortions years before the Supreme Court legalized the procedure on a national scale in 1973. (New York State legalized abortion in 1970, three years prior to the Roe v. Wade decision.)
The tribute was initiated by the Albany-based Concerned Clergy for Choice, a multi-faith organization of family planning advocates. Assembly members James Brennan of Brooklyn and Ellen Jaffee of Pearl River both spoke to pay homage to Schaef.
The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion convened by Rev. Schaef in 1966 is estimated to have helped more than 100,000 women obtain a safe abortion. “And there were no fatalities to the women,” says Schaef. “Not one. It was quite a remarkable venture. It eventually spread all across the country with more than 1,400 clergy joining up.”
And it all started with one very specific situation, he says.
Rev. Schaef, now a Saugerties resident and retired at age 85, was pastor at Washington Square Methodist Church in New York City in 1966. “A woman came to me whose teenage daughter had been raped and she was pregnant,” he says. “She asked me if I could help her find an abortionist and I couldn’t. I couldn’t help her, because I didn’t know of any. But about six months later, I ran into another minister in the neighborhood who was older and very experienced in organizing.”
That minister was Rev. Howard Moody, the Baptist pastor at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village. “I suggested to him that we start a clergy group that would refer women to physicians for safe abortions,” says Schaef. “So he called some people together and we met at my church two or three times. We had myself and Rev. Moody and another clergy member, and two very experienced high-powered attorneys along with abortion activist Larry Lader. Ephraim London was one of the attorneys; he argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court and got Lenny Bruce’s conviction overturned.”
The plan came together at the early organizational meetings. “We hashed out the details — it was controversial whether we wanted to include the word ‘abortion’ in the title, but we decided to do that — and then Howard, who was much more of an organizer than I was at the time, moved the whole operation to his church and it took off. The New York Times reported it when we were really ready to go forward.”
On May 22, 1967, The New York Times carried a front page announcement of the consultation service, including the names of Rev. Schaef and other clergy involved and their offer to refer women for safe and affordable abortions.
But despite the fact that abortion was illegal in the mid-’60s, they weren’t really worried about legal repercussions. “Well, we had to be very careful,” Schaef says. “We had to make sure our phone lines weren’t tapped. We were called before the grand jury in the Bronx by the district attorney, but nothing came of it. And that’s the only instance of any intervention by legal authorities; just that one time in the Bronx. It was kind of amazing.”
Receiving honors in the State Assembly last month was gratifying, Schaef says. “I had no inkling at all that anybody would ever do anything like this. Because it was my idea, you see, and Rev. Moody and I got the thing going, but I only conceived of it because of the experience I had with this distressed mother and her daughter. It distressed me that I couldn’t help her, but she turned out to be the power behind the idea, because if it weren’t for her, I would never have done it.” And when it came down to it, he says, “It was as easy as calling the right people together.”
The consultation service worked quite simply. “If a woman called, she was referred to one of the clergy members who was on duty, so to speak. I would do it for maybe a month and then I would be taken off the active list for a month or two, then I would be put back on and they would refer women to me again. There were a number of clergy involved, so we had enough to do that.” A woman would go to the referred clergy member’s office and receive the contact information for a physician who was willing to perform an abortion. “Someone who was legitimate and not a back alley kind of thing,” adds Schaef. “Someone that we could trust.”
Schaef retired from active ministry in 1997 after 40 years and moved up to Saugerties to be closer to family members in the area. He and his wife Nancy are active in Democratic politics, both members of the Saugerties Democratic Committee of which Nancy is vice-chair.
Schaef was also an activist in a broad spectrum of social protest movements, notably anti-Vietnam War and civil rights. He provided sanctuary to Vietnam War draft resisters at his church and he marched from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “I went down there with a couple of other clergy,” he says today. “I was in Queens at the time. It was a natural thing for me to do, because I was serving a church in St. Albans that was largely a black constituency and I was engaged in a lot of civil rights activities already.”
So is there any single memory that stands out from that march into Montgomery half a century ago? “The march was memorable,” Schaef says, “but what I remember most is hearing one of the preachers saying before the march, ‘People say we’re agitators. Well, you know in a washing machine, the agitator is the part that gets the dirt out of the clothes. And that’s what we’re doing here; we’re getting the dirt out of the system.’”