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SPRING 2003  
Vol. 31, No. 3

A Rabbinic Resister Reflects on the Era
When Abortion Was a Crime in America

By Simeon J. Maslin

Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that ruled unconstitutional all U.S. laws restricting abortion, has for thirty years protected a woman's right to privacy and choice. But can this pillar of American civil rights withstand the fervor of the conservative forces in Washington who seek to overturn it? As the abortion issue once again threatens to divide our nation, I find myself thinking back to life in pre-Roe v. Wade America, specifically to Chicago 1968.


RJ Magazine-Spring 2003I was in my mid-thirties and completing my first year as senior rabbi of Chicago's K.A.M. Temple, when the dean of Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago invited me to his study--ostensibly to get acquainted. But soon the conversation took a surprising turn. He began talking about the illegality of abortions in the United States and the consequent threat to the health and welfare of tens of thousands of women. Satisfied with my response, he confided that he was organizing a group of like-minded clergy who were willing to devote three or four hours every other week to counseling women with, as he called it, "problem pregnancies." About twenty Protestant ministers and one rabbi were already in the group, he explained; they needed at least three more rabbis so that the burden of consultation would not become onerous.

"I'm very much in favor of the idea," I said, "but I know very little about the medical and legal technicalities involved. I wouldn't know what to tell a woman if she asked me about the safety of the procedure and the possible consequences." Not to worry, he assured me: there would be several hours of training with sympathetic physicians, psychologists, and lawyers before I took my first call. We discussed a few other details, and then I agreed to join the Clergy Consultation Service on Problem Pregnancy, or CCS.

It was during that same year, 1968, that then Mayor Richard J. Daley turned Chicago into a police state to preserve "order" outside the hall of the now infamous Democratic Convention. With the cooperation of the district attorney, Daley had the police raid the offices of several clergy suspected of helping to arrange abortions. At a CCS meeting shortly after one of these raids, we decided that whatever notes we kept of our consultations must not reveal any information which might incriminate the CCS, ourselves, or the anguished clients who had sought our help. And so whenever I had the good fortune to receive letters of thanks from women whom I had helped, I carefully cut holes in them to remove any trace of their origins.

Recently, while consolidating some old files, I chanced upon one of those censored correspondences, dated June 2, 1970: two pages of delicate script on blue stationery with four precise excisions. More than thirty years had passed, yet I still remember vividly the author of that letter.

It was a Shabbat morning during one of those weeks when I was on call for the CCS. I was sitting in my study reviewing the Torah portion when the phone rang. A young man who introduced himself as Josh Miller* said he was calling from Evanston, where he and his girlfriend, Becca,* were Jewish students at Northwestern. They wanted to see me as soon as possible. When I explained that it was the Sabbath and that I could only see people during office hours (when my secretary was in the outer office to protect me from possible complications), Josh begged me to make an exception. It was urgent, he said, in a tone that I understood.

I thought for a moment. Shabbat was Shabbat--services and then home for Kiddush and Shabbat lunch with my wife Judy and the kids. Shabbat afternoons were jealously reserved for family. But...these two college students away from home and family needed help. I asked Josh if they could drive down immediately and meet with me after the service. He thanked me profusely and said they would be at the synagogue in less than an hour.

As I removed the Torah from the ark and faced the congregation for the Shema, I spotted a young couple walking in through the chapel doors and looking around tentatively. The usher, unused to seeing young people at Shabbat morning services when there was no bar or bat mitzvah, hurried over to them, offered them an expansive welcome, handed them siddurim and Torah commentaries, and led them down the aisle to front-row seats. As the service progressed, I watched them and was pleased to see that they were comfortable with the responses and eager to participate. Whatever the problem, at least they would have a bit of Shabbat.

They hung back at the rear of the chapel as I greeted each of the departing congregants with Shabbat Shalom, and then followed me into my study. As I hung up my robe and tallit, they began telling me about themselves. Josh was in his first year of medical school and Becca was an undergrad. They thought they might marry some day, but that was in the vague future. Josh had to complete medical school and, he hoped, a good internship and residency so that he could practice surgery. Becca was only 19 and was majoring in natural sciences. She was thinking of pre-med; her father was a family physician, and she admired him. Then came the information I had anticipated: Becca was pregnant.

The doctor at the Northwestern student clinic had determined that she was probably early into her second month. After spending a few agonizing nights discussing the matter, they had decided that abortion was the only sensible choice. The alternative--her dropping out of school entirely and his completing med school as early as possible and going immediately into practice in order to support a family--was unacceptable. And it soon became clear that, although they liked each other very much, they were not sure that they wanted to get married. They had been very good friends since meeting a few years earlier at a Jewish camp in New Jersey. When they found themselves together at Northwestern....well, one night after meeting in the library, they went back to his off-campus apartment and made love. Once. Just once!

I took an almost immediate liking to Josh and Becca. They were intelligent (though, as I would discover, ill-informed about contraception), earnest, and very deferential to each other and to me. I asked Becca if they had informed her parents. "No!" she blurted out vehemently. "It would be terrible if Dad found out what I want to do. He's very straitlaced and a bear on medical ethics. He often talks about colleagues who get rich doing illegal procedures like abortions. No, I can't let him know."

I thought about her response for a while, and then I said: "Look, kids, this is Shabbat, and my family is waiting for me. We have more to talk about, but first, why don't you two come home with me for Kiddush and a nice Shabbat lunch. Then we'll talk more." They began protesting, not wanting to interrupt my Shabbat with the family, but I shooshed them, picked up the phone, called Judy and told her that I had invited a nice young couple to join us. "Wonderful," she answered. And we left for home.

Becca was an instant hit with my daughters Naomi, 13, and Evie, 6, who insisted she sit between them at the table. My 11-year-old, David, was a bit shyer, but he answered all of Josh's questions about school and the White Sox. When I began chanting Kiddush, Becca and Josh joined in with the family, and later, as we sang zemirot, they not only joined in, but they added a few songs they had learned at synagogue youth conclaves. Naomi, in particular, was so taken with Becca that I had a hard time disengaging them after lunch. Judy explained that I had to talk over some things with Becca and Josh in my library and that afterwards they would have to drive back to Evanston. When Becca assured Naomi that she would take her around the Northwestern campus someday, she was satisfied, and they kissed goodbye.

We moved to my library to continue the conversation we had begun in the synagogue. "You've come to me with a very serious and intimate problem," I told Becca, "and I am trying to respond as a professional. But I must confess that I'm feeling very much in loco parentis. Your parents are far away, and I can't help feeling that I might be preempting their roles as loving advisers." I assured Becca that I respected the fact that she was an adult, capable of making her own decisions, and asked if she wanted Josh to leave so that she might talk more freely about her feelings. No, she wanted him to stay; she trusted him and, yes, she loved him, she said with a deep blush, and she hoped that they would marry some day.....maybe. But for now, she was convinced, abortion was the only reasonable choice.

I then began discussing the various possibilities for termination. Only when clients had no funds did we refer them to one of the few Chicago-area doctors with whom we had special understandings. That was dangerous; Mayor Daley had sharp eyes, long arms, and was strongly influenced by the cardinal. Those who could afford to pay and to travel a bit we sent to a relatively safe private clinic in Kansas City. If they could afford more, we sent them to doctors in the San Francisco area, where, though illegal, abortion was rarely subject to prosecution. But, as satisfied as we were with the medical expertise of our American referrals, there was always the threat of police interference and consequent embarrassment, and, even worse, the possibility of arrest and prosecution. For those who could afford the trip, the best option was London, where abortions were legal and the clinic CCS recommended had an excellent reputation for safety and compassion.

After proposing the alternatives to Becca and giving her some time to think, I said: "Look, Becca, I will help you no matter what your decision. But it would relieve me greatly, and maybe you too, if you allowed me to call your parents." She began to protest, more feebly than I expected, and then I added, "After all, I'm a rabbi. I might be able to help them understand." She looked at Josh who just shrugged his shoulders, and then, weeping softly, she said, "Okay, but I should warn you. My parents are very Victorian. When they find out that their little princess isn't a virgin, they'll explode. They won't ever want to see me again."

I will never forget that telephone conversation with Becca's parents. Her mother answered the phone. After introducing myself, I told Mrs. Sandberg that Becca was with me, that we had had Shabbat lunch together, and that I thought she had a lovely daughter. She thanked me and asked what had brought Becca to me. I could sense the concern in her voice.

Me: Well, Mrs. Sandberg, Becca has a bit of a problem. She is here with her friend Josh, and we've had a long and very personal conversation....

Mrs. S: Don't tell me that they want to get married! She's much too young. It's impossible. She has to finish school. (I heard her calling her husband to pick up the extension and waited for the click.)

Me: Hello, Dr. Sandberg. This is Rabbi Maslin in Chicago. I was just telling Mrs. Sandberg that I think you have a lovely daughter.

Dr. S: Thank you; but what's this all about? Did I hear you say "get married," Clara? What's going on?

Me: Look, I don't want to upset you, but Becca has a problem that we have to discuss. It's rather urgent.....

Dr. S: If Becca has a problem, why didn't she call us? (He sounded annoyed.) Why did she have to bother you about it? Is she all right? Please put her on the phone.

Me: I will in just a minute. She's fine, perfectly healthy; but here's the situation.....

I went on to explain gently why Josh had called me, the lengthy discussions that we had had in the synagogue and then at home, and the several possibilities, including carrying the baby to term, which Becca had rejected. (I could hear Mrs. Sandberg groan and then cry.) I then told them about the clinic in London and why I was recommending it.

Dr. S: You want to send my daughter to an abortionist? I thought that you were a rabbi! Have you gone crazy? Put Becca on the phone!

Me: I will in a minute, but I think that you should calm down first. I just met Becca a few hours ago, but I can see that she is a wonderful young woman. She made a mistake. What she needs now is some patience and understanding. She may be young, but she is old enough to decide about having a baby or not. She wants to terminate this pregnancy and to continue with school. She could have gone ahead without ever telling you about it. But I thought that you should know, and Becca agreed. I think that she could use some loving parental advice at this point. Shall I put her on now?

There was a long silence on the phone, and then......

Mrs. S: Dear..... Dear, she needs us.....

Dr. S: Yes, I know....... Rabbi Maslin, tell me more about that clinic in London.

I told the Sandbergs more about the CCS and why we recommended the London obstetrical facility. I also told them about the letters we received from women who were favorably impressed by the care they had received there.

Then, at the very instant that I heard Becca (who was standing next to me crying and straining to overhear the conversation) say: "If only my mother would go to London with me," I heard Mrs. Sandberg cry: "If only Becca would let me go to London with her." That's when I began to cry. I let a moment pass, and then I said: "Mrs. Sandberg, I'm handing the phone to Becca now. Would you two ladies please tell each other what you just said to me?"......

Becca, I later learned from her letter of thanks, spent two days at the London clinic with her mother at her side. The procedure was successful and virtually painless. They spent the rest of the week in London shopping, seeing two plays, and attending Friday evening services at the West London Synagogue.

As I place these two blue pages back into their folder along with a dozen or so other heavily excised letters, I wonder: Where is Becca now? Is she a doctor? Does she have children? How about all the others? And, considering the political realities in Washington today, will the nightmare of the pre-choice era be visited upon us once again?

*The names of the young couple, of their parents, and of several places have been changed.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin, HUC-JIR class of 1957, served as spiritual leader of Chicago's K.A.M. Isaiah Israel Congregation from 1967-1980; as rabbi of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania from 1980-1997; and as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis from 1995-1997.

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