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Sacred Work by Tom Davis
Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances
Rutgers University Press, 2005
(261 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Anne Barbeau Gardiner
A stalking-horse is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as a horse, either real or painted on a canvas, behind which a hunter conceals himself to get close to his prey. For the past 70 years, Planned Parenthood (PP) has been using willing members of the Christian clergy as a stalking-horse to make their revolutionary idea of sexuality morally acceptable.
Tom Davis, the author of Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances, was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 1960 and taught for decades at Skidmore College, where he was also chaplain. In the 1990s, he sat on the national board of PP and now serves on the board of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and on PP’s Clergy Advisory Board. He assures us that this story has never been told before.
A Religious Duty
Davis admires “the Planned Parenthood clergy” (as he calls them) for having been “a major force behind a transformation of society’s view of women seeking abortions,” and even for being a step ahead of PP itself in the push for abortions: “It was the clergy who were earliest in the field.” Of course, they were: The mask is always foremost.
It started on May 22, 1967, with a front-page article in The New York Times in which the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS) announced that it would help women get abortions. They declared that it was a “religious duty” for them to assist “all women with problem pregnancies,” that the present laws compelled “the birth of unwanted, unloved and often deformed children,” and that “although there may be embryo life in the fetus, there is no living child upon whom the crime of murder can be committed.” They assured the public that abortionists were motivated by “compassion” and lived “by the highest standards of religion.”
Soon its members were working seven-hour days persuading women that an abortion was not “the most horrible thing in the world,” and by 1969 they were referring 10,000 women a year for abortions. Since it was already legal to provide an abortion to save a woman’s life, in December 1969 they began planning to open a facility where any woman might have an abortion on the “legal grounds” that two psychiatrists certified she was “suicidal.”
“The subterfuge of the two psychiatrists” became unnecessary in July 1970 when state legislators repealed New York’s abortion laws. The CCS now opened their own abortion facility on East 73rd Street and “provided almost all of its referrals.” It remained open 16 hours a day, seven days a week, doing 100 abortions a day, usually for $200. In the first year alone, it aborted 26,000 unborn children.
In the five years leading up to Roe v. Wade, the core group of 21 clergy expanded to about 2,000 clergy and referred over 100,000 women for abortions. After Roe v. Wade, the clergy’s influence on PP waned for 20 years, since by the end of 1973 “most mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations had taken pro-choice stands and were on record as opposing any movement to criminalize abortion.”
Davis later formed the Adirondack Religious Coalition for Choice, which arranged open houses for clergy in PP facilities, and attended public meetings and gave press conferences on the morality of abortion whenever PP was ready to open a local abortion facility.
In 1992, PP appointed Davis to its 36-member national board so he could perform the same magic from coast to coast. The first thing on his agenda was to convince PP affiliates that the “ religious nature” (emphasis his) of the pro-life arguments meant that they could only be refuted by equally religious arguments. Davis cites such an argument, devised by one of the PP clergy: “I suggest that the sacred fetus is the modern equivalent of the Golden Calf.” (The unborn child is mentioned just once or twice in Sacred Work.)
Meanwhile, Davis and his cohorts made an idol of PP. At the PP prayer breakfast in 2005, a clergyman uttered this fervent remark: “If God would give me another life to live, I would dedicate it entirely to Planned Parenthood.”
After Davis rose to national office, the Clergy Advisory Board soon began publishing a newsletter called Clergy Voices to defend abortion with theological and biblical arguments. Next, PP initiated church-sponsored classes in sex education aimed at children aged 9 to 18, and then PP affiliates across the country each hired its own chaplain and started having prayer services.
In 1998, PP inaugurated a “prayer breakfast” at its annual conference that proved highly effective “in demonstrating the religious dimensions” of the organization, and in 2004 announced it was “hiring a national chaplain” to be a “visible embodiment” of its “extensive religious support” and to respond to “religious attacks” on abortion. Could there be a sweeter disguise for the wolf than such a sheepskin?
The clergy’s support for abortion was preceded, not surprisingly, by their support for contraception. Davis explains that from the 1920s to the 1960s, while Evangelical Protestants stood on the sidelines in the culture war—they “were not supporters of birth control and certainly not of Planned Parenthood, but they did not join the struggle to keep contraception out of public health services”—this was not the case with other clergy.
As far back as 1921, Margaret Sanger, an avowed atheist, corresponded with prominent clergymen and traveled great distances to speak even briefly and distribute her literature at church conferences. When, in 1931, a committee of the Federal Council of Churches (later the National Council of Churches), chaired by Reinhold Niebuhr, spoke out in favor of birth control, Sanger had a finger in it. Davis informs us that her collected papers show she was working closely with the Federal Council of Churches and had raised money for that very committee chaired by Niebuhr.
Also in 1931, the Unitarians and Congregationalists endorsed birth control, and a Special Commission on Marriage made a breach with the traditional Christian teaching for Presbyterians while the Lambeth Conference made one for Anglicans. By the end of the 1930s, the Methodists, too, changed their teaching. By 1946, the “Planned Parenthood clergy” published a national petition signed by 3,200 clergymen denouncing religious opponents who refused to allow birth control in public hospitals and welfare agencies.
As more and more clergy began to attend the openings of her clinics, Sanger’s prestige rose, for they “brought a measure of sacredness to the movement that would come to be known as Planned Parenthood.” Davis exclaims that Sanger had “captured their consciences” and celebrates the victories they won for her: “It was precisely the religious and moral authority of these supportive clergy that changed public opinion about birth control.” Until Roe v. Wade, they would be a “vital part” of PP victories, for their voices “presumed to speak for the sacred.” (“Presumed”!)
In 1958, the PP clergy succeeded in making tax-funded birth-control services available in the public hospitals and welfare offices of New York City. In this big battle, Davis writes, they “neutralized” the “morality issue” by using religious arguments. They proceeded to use the same strategy across America, always countering religious objections with religious arguments, like this one never heard before in the history of the world: that birth control is “a religious obligation” and its denial to welfare clients something “immoral.”
The PP clergy were launching a sexual revolution, but they pretended that birth-control services were being limited to the married. As Davis admits, PP affiliates didn’t ask for marriage licenses, and unmarried women were served “despite its formal policy.”
He excuses the dishonesty, arguing that PP could not openly change its policy because they “had to move carefully” not to get “too far ahead of public sensibilities.” Their “vision” helped to “diminish the stigma of deeming a woman to be acting improperly and immorally if she chose to be sexually active before marriage.”
Bring back the stalking-horse! In the early 1960s, the Clergymen’s Advisory Board began arguing that the “denial of services to the unwed” was immoral: It was wrong to deny “poor young women the knowledge to protect themselves from pregnancy and sexual disease.” (The Supreme Court did not establish the right of unmarried women to contraception until 1972.)
They knew that giving out contraceptives to unmarried women would vastly increase sexual intercourse outside marriage, but declared in 1965 that promiscuity was surely better than unwanted children. “The problems of the unwanted child far overshadow the possible extension of the problems of promiscuity.” In the mid-1960s, they were already calling unwanted births “compulsory pregnancy.”
These statements link the PP clergy’s enthusiasm for birth control in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s with their zeal for abortion in 1967 and after. They assumed, it appears from the story Davis tells, that women ought to be able to have sex without the consequences. If women had not prevented “compulsory” pregnancies by contraception, they must be able to end them by abortion.
In his conclusion, Davis states that the PP clergy have recently been energized again by the battle over embryonic stem-cell research. They believe the new research will be of great advantage to their own congregations. He reports that “mainline clergy are acutely aware that these” diseases—the diseases that embryo-destroying stem-cell research will allegedly cure—“are the very diseases that are most threatening to their aging congregations.” Aging. He doesn’t see the irony.
An Old Case
In the last few years, several books have been published by major university presses all claiming to be blazing a trail by arguing that abortion is a moral choice, beginning with Leslie Cannold’s The Abortion Myth (Wesleyan University Press) in 2000. Daniel Boonin, in his A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge University Press), boasted that he was making the best case “for the moral permissibility of abortion yet published,” and in Sacred Rights (Oxford University Press), Daniel Maguire claimed (falsely) to have proven that abortion was “sacred” in all the world’s major religions.
It turns out that these scholars are not on the cusp after all. The case for the morality of abortion has been made to repletion in the past forty years by the PP clergy. Tom Davis tells the whole story in Sacred Work as if it were a great triumph. In truth, it is the story of the Judas kiss that, as always,leads an armed mob against Christ.
Dr. Gardiner’s review of Maguire’s Sacred Rights appeared in the June 2004 issue, and of Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion in the July/August 2003 issue. Readers interested in more information on Planned Parenthood will want to read Dawn Eden’s report from the April 2005 issue, which can be found at www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=18-03-057-r.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner is Professor Emerita, Department of English, John Jay College, City University of New York. She is the author of Ancient Faith and Modern Freedom in John Dryden?s The Hind and the Panther (Catholic University of America Press) and a regular reviewer for New Oxford Review.