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Judy Waters: The 'Surprising Allies' who pioneered reproductive health care access in Western Mass.

People attend a protest rally (copy) (copy)

People attend a June 26 rally at Park Square in Pittsfield to protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade, shortly after the Supreme Court issued its official decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.

With the recent overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling, struggles from the pre-Roe era are not forgotten. Before 1973, Western Massachusetts played a key role.

“Surprising Allies: The Struggle Over Birth Control and Abortion in 1960s Massachusetts,” a 2019 piece from the Massachusetts Historical Journal, highlights the work of David Cline, author of “Creating Choice: A Community Responds to the Need for Abortion and Birth Control, 1961-1973.”

Cline focused on the Pioneer Valley and chronicled events around the loss of a Holyoke Community College student from an unsafe abortion. Her death “galvanized” the community, wrote Cline. Dr. Robert Gage, then head of University of Massachusetts Health Services (UHS), spoke out in an editorial to the Daily Collegian, calling for a “code of action” related to “reality.”

In the 1960s, Dr. Gage provided birth control to UMass students “openly if not blatantly,” reported Cline. Gage commented that, legally, “the ice was very thin,” as contraceptives remained illegal for unmarried women in Massachusetts. Gage also hired Jane Zapka as the first UHS public health educator of “what came to be known informally as the Family Planning Clinic at UHS” and brought on new physicians supportive of change.

At Smith College, in 1968, a new Western Massachusetts chapter of the Clergy Consultation Services was opened by chaplain Richard Unsworth. The CCS counseled and aided women in receiving abortion services at locations clergy members knew were safe. CCS had about 40 “loosely affiliated” chapters across the country, according to Cline. Unsworth, who had Berkshire ties, knew personally of three students who faced either an abortion or a medically complicated pregnancy.

In their advocacy, the CCS “always used the terms ‘problem pregnancy counseling’ or ‘options counseling’ to stress that abortion wasn’t the only path to take,” said Cline. The group helped those who could least afford to travel out of the country for an abortion. They counseled without judgment and without attaching stigma.

Leading up to Roe v. Wade, women health counselors and activists in the Pioneer Valley developed close connections with the members of CCS, despite legal barriers. Cline reported that paper trails were avoided out of fear of being criminally investigated.

Cline added, “Over time, members of these once very separate spheres — health care, the church, and feminist activism — had begun to interact as they worked toward common goals.” The author described the work of organizer Leslie Laurie and the 1973 Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts, which later became Tapestry Health.

In Pittsfield, change was also taking place. By 1974, the grassroots Womens’ Services Center opened in Pittsfield, helping to break the silence around domestic abuse and sexual assault. Heading the organization early on was community advocate Sheila Wessel, of Pittsfield. The service was critical to local women’s health and safety. It later became the Elizabeth Freeman Center.

“Surprising Allies” highlights details of Cline’s research, including how women activists posted stickers around Northampton with phone numbers for help with pregnancy. It reveals how physicians, women’s counselors and clergy sometimes put their own careers on the line. Despite legal liability, they refused to look the other way.

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the clock has been set back. Though Massachusetts today legally protects reproductive health care, risks increase for women elsewhere who must travel out of state. In some states, contraceptives may come under scrutiny.

Fifty years ago, the loss of a college student galvanized doctors, clergy and activists during a decade when access to contraceptive information was often hidden. Dr. Gage, seeing a critical need for change, later commented that if more options had been known to the student, the situation might have been different, according to Cline.

Before the 1973 ruling of Roe v. Wade, in Western Massachusetts, a group of “surprising allies” came together. “Creating Choice” documents a history of pioneers who broke barriers and brought reproductive health care out of the shadows.

In a different era, health professionals, clergy and activists saw the realities of women having few and limited options. A legacy formed of struggle and compassion. It brought change. With the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, that legacy is not forgotten.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and occasional Eagle contributor.

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