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Sacred Work: Planned Parenthood and Its Clergy Alliances

by Tom Davis.   
New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2005. 
Paperback, 264 pp., Index. 

Reviewed by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott

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Although this fascinating history of reproductive politics was published six years ago, it is remarkably timely. Recently I have felt stunned to see the Right Wing aiming its attacks not only at abortion, but even at contraception. However, Tom Davis’ book has provided ample proof that this dual attack is nothing new. In 1916 Margaret Sanger served 30 days in jail simply for disseminating information about birth control. Because of determined Roman Catholic opposition, it was not until 1934 that any American church openly endorsed birth control. And it was 1942 before the American Birth Control League morphed into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the organization currently being demonized as an abortion-provider. But at its beginnings there was not even a whisper about abortion.

In fact, despite the combined efforts of clergy and Planned Parenthood, it was 1958 before contraception became available to New Yorkers in city hospitals, and then only to those who could prove they were married. It was 1965 before the State of Maryland made contraceptives available to unmarried women. Finally, in 1967 the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion was organized by concerned Protestant and Jewish clergy to help women find safe abortions. So historically, it was political opposition to contraception that extended into opposition to abortion, whereas here in 2012 violent opposition to abortion is now extending into opposition to contraception of any sort except abstinence or the unreliable rhythm method.

The Rev. Tom Davis is not just an astute historian of a previously unrecorded coalition; he is thoroughly feminist and has been a family planning activist for many years. He points out an important historical “disconnect”: that “the high rate of criminal abortion seemed to produce no concerted sustained public opposition” from Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist institutions, yet today these same churches proclaim legal abortion as “the gravest of all social problems.” Since these churches also bar women from ministry and priesthood, it seems clear that issues of abortion and contraception are ultimately about controlling women’s lives. Because Roe v. Wade gave women a legal power they had never before possessed, people who did not care about back-alley abortions now portray legal abortion as “the crime of the century.”

Christian feminists can pick up lots of useful information from this history of Planned Parenthood and its interaction with clergypeople. For instance, Davis provides a brief but cogent description of issues surrounding stem-cell research, including the fact that as of May 2003 fertility clinics had 396,526 embryos stored in their freezers – embryos that could be utilized in research to save lives rather than eventually being destroyed. He also mentions that the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice provides proof on its website that Bush’s faith-based initiatives were “a type of cultural change targeted directly at women’s rights.” And the book contains some excellent “quotables,” such as the Rev. Roger Buchanan’s comment that “the sacred fetus is the modern equivalent of the Golden Calf…. If the fetus is sacred [and the mother is not], the mother is subservient, a view that is destructive to women.”

In short, Tom Davis has produced a book that embodies its title, being throughout a Sacred Work.

Virginia Ramey Mollenkott


Reviewer Virginia Ramey Mollenkott is Professor Emeritus of English Language and Literature at the William Paterson University of New Jersey. Among the thirteen books she has authored or coauthored are Women, Men, and the Bible; The Divine Feminine; Omnigender; and Sensuous Spirituality: Out from Fundamentalism.



© 2012 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus.

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