Abortion Historian Gillian Frank on Religious Leaders who Once Helped Women End Pregnancies

Historians in the News
tags: abortion, religious history, reproductive rights

Let’s assume for now that the Supreme Court’s draft opinion, leaked Monday to Politico, won’t change between now and June. Let’s assume that the court strikes down Roe. If that’s the case – and I don’t see why it would not be – people will wonder what a post-Roe America will look like.

History can help. 

A particular history. 

Gillian Frank is a historian of American sexuality and religion. He’s the co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast. His forthcoming book tells the story of American religious leaders helping women get abortions.

Come again?


Contrary to conservative belief, religious people were not opposed to abortion before 1973. Opinions were mixed. Catholics were against it. Nothing unusual there. Evangelical Protestants were indifferent. That might be surprising. More surprising, though, is the decades’ long religious movement advocating for the repeal of state abortion laws.


Because “these ministers, these rabbis, these priests, these nuns” were on the frontlines of slow-moving medical disaster in which desperate women did desperate things, resulting in mutilation or death.  

I’m hoping you can explain to normal people what was going on before Roe among religious people and what might happen post-Roe

In the decades after World War II, the 1940s and 1950s, abortion restrictions tightened. Before World War II, though it was illegal, hospitals and independent abortion providers were local resources. 

People could access abortions. 

Those numbers dropped dramatically as states crusaded against abortion services. Demand didn’t decrease. Supply did. 

Filling in this gap were predatory providers, “Backstreet butchers.” People would seek them out and end up injured, mutilated or dead. People trying to get abortions through the front door of hospitals often, or often enough, ended up coming in through the ER. 

This was the situation clergy were witnessing. 

Clery were witnessing people in their congregations come to them, desperate for abortions. They would see their own loved ones become unwillingly pregnant. They would seek out abortions for them. 

I’m talking about Catholic priests, rabbis and mainline ministers. 

Demand never went away. 

Many people in those decades still attended services. They were still active in their congregations. They saw priests, ministers and rabbis as sources of counseling and support. They could turn to them for help. 

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