The Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion, joined by over a thousand religious leaders around the country, began in 1967 helping women connect with medical practitioners who performed the procedure illegally. Once abortion became legal in New York in April 1970, the Clergy Consultation Service opened a clinic on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, known informally as Women’s Services. Artist Sabra Moore worked at the clinic from 1970-1972 after having had an abortion herself while serving in the Peace Corps in Guinea.
Moore’s papers from Women’s Services, including union organizing papers, notes from counselor meetings, and other materials are part of Sabra Moore NYC Women's Art Movement Collection.
I volunteered for the Peace Corps in a remote town in Guinea from 1964 to 1966. In our training, they never talked with us about birth control, although they kept mentioning that they might. I was a girl from Texas. I had a wonderful university education, but I did not have birth control information.
I got pregnant against my will, and I tried everything I had heard about, such as taking quinine pills and negotiating to obtain the leaves Guerzé women used as an abortifacient. I ingested huge quantities of this tea. Nothing worked. I was 21, my pregnancy wasn’t planned, and I was not prepared to have a child nor to be humiliated and forced to leave Guinea.
During this difficult period, I happened to read in Life magazine that abortion was legal in Czechoslovakia; I knew a Peace Corps volunteer in a nearby town who had visited a Czech doctor. I borrowed money from a shopkeeper, not telling him why I needed it, and took a bus to Kankan to find this doctor.
The doctor agreed to perform the abortion. I went under anesthesia; it was in a hospital, I thought it was fine. The next day, I started passing huge clots of blood, so the following day, I went back to see the doctor. He was not concerned or surprised about the clots, and he didn’t do anything further.
The health care system in Guinea was terrible, and there were no doctors working in my town when I traveled to Kankan. A Polish doctor arrived just after I returned. Two weeks later, while making morning coffee, I started hemorrhaging profusely. My women friends brought me to the hospital and the Polish doctor gave me a D&C without anesthesia. I lost so much blood; I could very easily have died. I realized much later, while working at the clinic, why I had hemorrhaged. The doctor had left part of the placenta. He had to have known this.
I never told the Peace Corps. I told my family later. That was what we did at that time. I also learned much later that another Peace Corps volunteer from New York had gotten pregnant in Guinea, and they had kicked her out in disgrace.
When I arrived back in the United States, I moved to New York City to become a painter, and later became involved in an activist group called Women Artists in Revolution (WAR). The Clergy Consultation Service recruited from WAR and from other feminist groups. They hired women who had had illegal abortions to work as counsellors, thinking that we would be most empathetic. That was true. We were all passionately committed.
There were a lot of artists in the clinic group. We were trained as paraprofessionals to counsel the woman before the abortion and to assist during the procedure. We discussed why they wanted the abortion and gave them birth control information. We provided support and then cleaned up afterward. They paid us $50 for our eight-hour day. We were trained by the first clinic director, Dr. Hale Harvey, who we found out later was not an M.D. but a doctor of philosophy.
There were so many diverse kinds of women patients from all different types of circumstances. Often they had had nobody to talk to about their situation. One woman flew in from Utah, pregnant by a right-to life Senator. One was 25 and had already had six children; coming to NYC for this abortion was the first time that she had had a break from childbearing in years and she had decided to limit her family to six. Many women had struggled financially to get to New York to the clinic. We had some 12-and 13-year-olds; those were the hardest to counsel. One 12-year-old girl came in from Florida with her mother; her mother worked in a tire factory and had given birth to her daughter when she was fifteen. She wanted more opportunity for her girl than she had had. One woman had been taking the pill but vaginally; she had never been educated properly about how to take it. It was hard for us to deal with all the emotions that these women were experiencing, and also making sure they were safe. Medically, however, it was a very safe procedure.
There was only one woman doctor, Dr. Joan Fine. The other doctors were all men. There was one wonderful doctor —Dr. William Walden. He figured out a method to numb the cervix with lidocaine, by making many short injections around the cervix. He and Dr. Fine were the only doctors who really cared about the woman’s pain. So when a patient had Dr. Walden, she had no pain. We always wanted to work with him. He was truly compassionate. The patient had already gone through a lot of trauma, and he did everything he could to make the procedure normal so that she could leave the clinic feeling that she could move forward.
The second director of the clinic was Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of NARAL; we tried to negotiate with him about some of the doctors, to get some fired and to educate others to improve their interactions with women. He was uninterested. This led to our organizing a union. Years later, Nathanson had an epiphany and decided that abortion was murder and that he had presided over 60,000 deaths. He became an anti-abortion activist and narrated the anti-abortion film, The Silent Scream, in which a fetus looks like it is recoiling from the suction instrument.
We counseled four patients a day, and were supposed to spend an hour and a half with each patient. But there came a point when we were pressured to speed up the process and spend less time with each patient. We were all political activists, so we knew how to organize and fight. We decided to organize with Local 1199 SEIU. It took us a year. We did not ask for more money; we just wanted to limit the number of patients per day and preserve the relationship with the patients. We won and became members of the union, and kept the patient limit. During the year of organizing however, the clinic hired nurse-practitioners, whom we trained, and who were not in the union. Only we, the paraprofessionals, were part of the union. So there was a schism in the clinic, and our organizing also caused a split with the Clergy Consultation Service, who called us mercenaries.
During my two years with the clinic, I assisted with over a thousand abortion procedures. I never met a single woman who had not thought carefully about the decision she had had to make in terminating her pregnancy. The reward for all of us counsellors was the relief that most women felt despite the complexity of the circumstances. Shortly after winning the union, I left the clinic along with fellow artist Georgia Matsumoto. Georgia and I did house-painting together for the next seven years. We needed a simpler sort of job. I learned later that the clinic closed down and became a run-away shop, getting rid of the union, and later re-opened staffed with volunteers.
I never thought that today we would still be debating the right to an abortion. I’m astonished that not only abortion but even birth control is still up for debate. This should not be happening.