He may no longer have the beard and shoulder-length brown hair that adorned his head in the 1970s, but Reverend Mike Smith hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for social justice and reproductive rights. For four decades, Smith has been a stalwart pro-choice advocate, and those in Southern Arizona who have worked with him have been inspired by his indomitable spirit.
Smith’s personal connection to the fight for reproductive rights began when he was a seminary student in California. In 1965, he took part in the march from Selma to Montgomery that is considered by many to be the climactic event of the Civil Rights Movement. This experience opened his eyes to the potential clergy have to make the world a more humane place, and for Smith, the struggle for civil rights encompassed reproductive freedom. “Out of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement, abortion was just an obvious part of that for me,” says Smith.
For the first 12 years of his career, Smith was involved in campus ministries, eventually coming to Tucson in 1971 to work with students at the University of Arizona. For many young adults, he was one of the few people to whom they could turn for advice. It was in his capacity as a campus minister that his religious faith and belief in reproductive freedom dovetailed.
“As a campus minister there were occasions where you would be the one that [a] college student would come to with an unwanted pregnancy,” says Smith. “So a lot of campus ministers found themselves counseling with women who didn’t know where else to go.”
Driven by his interest in civil rights, Smith joined the pro-choice movement through his involvement with a group called the Clergy Counseling Service. Prior to the Roe v. Wade decision, abortion was legal in California, and the Clergy Counseling Service helped Arizona women travel to California for abortion services. Due to “aiding-and-abetting” laws that were in place at the time, the simple act of sharing information and resources in order to help a woman leave the state for a legal abortion could have gotten someone else in hot water, but clergy members and the women they counseled were afforded confidentiality by law. Smith estimates that he counseled 250 to 300 women until Roe v. Wade cleared the way for legal abortion in Arizona and across the nation.
“To deal personally with women who wanted a solution to their pregnancy other than carrying it to term was really amazing and many times emotional,” recalls Smith. “For some it was an easy decision, [while] some women were really struggling with the options. We were able to answer, to some degree, the technical questions of what it involved. And of course as counselors, what we were always trying to do is help them reach the decision that was right for them. Once in a while religious aspects [would] come in, but not always.”
This activism brought him into contact with the local Planned Parenthood affiliate, and in 1975 he joined the Planned Parenthood Board of Directors in Tucson, Arizona, serving until 1983. Smith’s involvement with the Board came at a monumental time in its history. After the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the question of abortion was suddenly on the Board’s table: Should Planned Parenthood become a provider of such services? Despite the Supreme Court decision, accessibility was still an issue. In the early post-Roe years, Smith remembers Tucson as having only one or two doctors who performed abortions. Finally, in 1983, the Board moved forward with their resolution to include abortion services. “That was a big step,” recalls Smith.
During the ’80s the country’s politics took a sharp turn rightward and conservative Christians became more outspoken than their moderate and progressive counterparts. Right-wing Christian and anti-abortion organizations such as the Moral Majority and Operation Rescue came into the forefront, pushing other Christians out of the public eye. Open support for the pro-choice position faded among moderate and progressive Christians. “And some of that’s our fault,” admits Smith, “and some of it was the realities of the day, starting with eight years of Ronald Reagan and his popularity. As the Republican Party conservatives and evangelicals then gained credibility and power, it was harder to be vocal and speak out.”
Smith’s involvement with Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement has had a positive impact on many people’s lives over four decades. He is still going strong in Tucson where he remains active as a Presbyterian clergyman.