Defining “Problem Pregnancies”: Religion, Medicine, and pre-Roe Politics of Abortion in the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service


  • Madeleine Ware Yale University


Roe v. Wade, Abortion, South Carolina, Problem Pregnancies, Clergy Consultation Service


In 1883, South Carolina passed its first abortion law which criminalized all abortions except in cases when pregnancy posed a physical threat to a woman’s life. Historians have demonstrated that such laws did not keep people from talking about, seeking out, or providing abortions in the United States prior to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973). In 1970, South Carolina legislators passed an amendment which was intended to expand the conditions for legal abortion. Yet, in this same year a group of at least sixty-eight clergymen (including Protestant pastors, Jewish rabbis, and Catholic priests) across the state formed the South Carolina Clergy Consultation Service for Problem Pregnancies (SCCCS) because they believed women “needed” allies to provide counseling and connect them with providers for safe and clandestine abortions. This article analyzes the founding of the SCCCS and asks why these clergy members sensed such a “need” in the same year that state legal restrictions on abortions seemed to be relaxing. Oral histories with clergy members and records of individual SCCCS counseling sessions reveal stark differences between the ways that women defined “problem pregnancies” and the definitions outlined in the 1970 state abortion amendment. I argue that the abortion amendment was, therefore, an attempt by lawmakers to tighten their authority over reproductive decision-making at a time when intersecting Civil Rights and Women’s Health Movements challenged white, male biopolitical hegemony in the South. The mostly younger group of clergymen in the SCCCS were eager to position themselves as allies to women as tensions over who could define “problem pregnancies” became more publicly visible with the 1970 abortion amendment.