Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass’ surprising history of reproductive healthcare inspires ‘revolutionary’ thinking

Taking a look into what the past can offer us
Collegian File Photo

I recently learned about the University of Massachusetts surprising history of reproductive healthcare. We have this information thanks to historian David Cline, who studied at UMass and did immense work to capture individual voices in oral histories. In 2006, Cline published Creating Choice, a Community Responds to the Need for Abortion and Birth Control, 1961-1973. Many archives of his interviews are stored in the W.E.B. Du Bois Library. Given current events, it’s an important moment to remember the people that came before us. These histories can give insight into the present and hopefully inspire a different future.

In the 1960s and 70s, UMass was a radical place for birth control and abortion. Birth control was illegal in Massachusetts for unmarried women until 1972, and abortion was illegal until 1973. Still, the UMass community found ways to provide these services through an underground network.

Politically, Massachusetts is a progressive state. Yet it has not always been socially progressive, especially on reproductive issues. Scholars believe this is due to the state’s Catholic heritage, which is traditionally opposed to sex outside procreation. Ours was consistently one of the last states to legalize birth control and abortion.

Birth control does not just refer to “the pill.” Yes, the pill was illegal, but single women could not buy any form of birth control, including condoms, diaphragms or spermicide until 1972. The penalty for doctors prescribing these goods ranged from a $100 fine up to five years in prison.

Regardless, students at UMass were having sex and were eager for information. Enter Dr. Robert Gage, who became the director at University Health Services (UHS) between 1960 and 1971. Dr. Gage was a reproductive rights champion who advanced access to sex education, birth control and resources for UMass students and nationally.

Perhaps his most radical act was prescribing birth control to students, as did many practitioners under his leadership. By doing this, UHS, which is part of a state-funded school system, was breaking state law. Dr. Gage recalled that then-UMass President John Lederle gave his implicit permission, stating, “if Bob Gage says it’s all right, it’s all right with me.”

There was another major issue on campus—unplanned pregnancies. As Dr. Gage said, “contraception did sometimes fail” or sometimes students didn’t request it. He recalled one baby that was born in a rhododendron garden at night, and brought into UHS the next morning by a football player who said “quick, take it, I don’t wanna drop it.”

Other students decided to seek abortions. According to statistics that Cline referenced between the late 60s and early 70s, roughly a quarter of the female student body sought illegal abortions each year. Nationally, estimates from this time predict up to 1 million women pursued illegal and often dangerous abortions annually.

In 1968, religious leaders in New York City responded to this crisis by developing the Clergy Consultation Service (CCS). The service included rabbis, priests and other religious figures representing most denominations aside from Catholicism. The group’s vision was to offer support, and, if asked, make referrals to vetted abortion providers. According to Cline, the clergy agreed that if arrested, they would claim to be “answerable to a higher law.”

CCS chapters began popping up around the country, including at UMass around 1969. Located in Hampshire House, the chapter was run by Reverend Ronald Hardy of the United Christian Foundation (UCF), which represented several Protestant denominations. I found Reverend Hardy’s words describing clergy motivations in the University Archives: “Behind CCS actions is the belief that terminating an unwanted pregnancy is fundamentally an ethical decision that involves one’s understanding of life and death. It may also be a situation of deep emotional and psychological trauma for the woman. We feel this is the most important part of our work, helping women to sort through various possibilities along with their feelings and attitudes.”

Because UHS declined to offer abortion services, CCS filled a great need on campus. In 1970, a UMass senior and his girlfriend found out they were unintentionally pregnant. Terrified, unaware of the newly opened CCS or where to turn for help, they decided that he would perform the abortion. Hours later she was dead and he was taken to prison. The UMass community was grief-stricken. Reverend Hardy wrote in to the Massachusetts Daily Collegian urging everyone to “Try Harder.” He openly listed the phone number for abortion assistance and concluded “Let us all learn by this experience to try harder and love in new ways. Spread the GOOD NEWS!”

In 1973, the Supreme Court made the controversial Roe v. Wade decision that widely legalized abortion. CCS chapters soon dissolved or merged with groups like Planned Parenthood. Although the struggle was over in some ways, backlash to abortion exploded and has not yet subsided.

Last year, the Supreme Court allowed a Texas law called Senate Bill 8 to remain in effect while challenges work through lower courts. The law incentivizes citizens to earn bounties up to $10,000 by suing anyone involved in providing abortions at or beyond six weeks. They will hear another case on a Mississippi abortion ban in June of this year. Many see ongoing challenges to Roe v. Wade as a sign that legal abortion is at serious risk.

Today, sex education and abortion are often seen as hyper-political us-versus-them issues. According to health historian Alexandra Lord in her book “Condom Nation,” we are forced to choose between ideas of “medicine or morality,” leaving us unable to care about both. “Pro-life” and “pro-choice” language exacerbates this needless division. This story blurred those lines for me and challenged my assumptions about authority and religion.

Wherever you stand on reproductive issues, I invite you to explore the past that underpins your beliefs. This awareness won’t solve polarization, but it might help us reimagine the boxes we put ourselves and others in and envision new solutions. As UMass students, what could be more revolutionary than confronting new ways of thinking?

To quote Reverend Hardy, let us “try harder and love in new ways.”

Devinne Melecki can be reached at [email protected].

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    Thomas BarrettFeb 9, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    Very good history. I know it was written primarily about UMass, but I would add that in the Commonwealth it was also illegal to advocate birth control. In 1967, Bill Baird, a reproductive rights advocate, was arrested and put in jail for speaking to a gathering of students and handing out a condom at Boston University. Condoms were sold by drug stores but kept under the counter and had to be asked for.

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    NikkiFeb 9, 2022 at 1:13 pm

    Surprised this didn’t mention the most recent and revolutionary addition to abortion healthcare at UMass Amherst — medication abortion provided at UHS starting in fall 2022.