Between beginning and ending her ministry career in Boston, the Rev. Elinor Lockwood Yeo spent years helping women and girls in Milwaukee, including many who were young victims of rape and incest, obtain safe abortions in the years before and after Roe v. Wade.
As director of a Milwaukee clinic in the 1970s and early ‘80s, she endured death threats to herself and her family as anti-abortion protesters threw red paint on the clinic’s door, glued locks, and used vile language to harass patients and staff who were entering and leaving.
All the while Rev. Yeo used her ministerial training to counsel women, and sometimes girls as young as 13, as they decided whether or not to seek an abortion.
“You’d be surprised at how many times a mother would bring in her very young daughter and say, ‘Well, I don’t believe in abortion, but this is different,’ " she recalled in a video interview. “And I said to myself, ‘You know, everyone is different. Everyone is different — not just your daughter.’ "
Rev. Yeo, who started out in campus ministry at Boston University and ended her work years as a volunteer chaplain at Boston Children’s Hospital and a chaplain to the Old South Church choir, was 88 and living in Newton when she died of heart failure Jan. 10 in Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
“She was one of the founders of a nationwide network of clergy and rabbis that referred girls and women to licensed doctors before Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973,” her son Matthew of Chevy Chase, Md., wrote in notes for a eulogy he delivered Sunday during her memorial service in Old South Church.
He added that his mother “was a front-line witness to the horrors of back-alley abortions and the inequities of a system in which access to reproductive health care was determined by geography, race, and class — a system to which we are sadly returning.”
When Rev. Yeo and her husband, the Rev. Richard Yeo, arrived in Milwaukee more than 50 years ago, he was a church minister and she was part of the campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin.
She then became involved with reproductive rights and directed the area’s clergy consultation service for women seeking abortions.
According to Milwaukee news reports at the time, the organization soon began assisting more than 2,000 women annually, all of whom faced daunting challenges while trying to find safe medical care before the US Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutional right to an abortion.
“The stories that they told about illegal abortions were terrifying,” Rev. Yeo said in a video interview conducted by Ellie Yeo, one of her grandchildren.
Rev. Yeo added that she and others in the clergy organization were determined “to find places where abortion procedures could be done safely and under compassionate circumstances,” which often meant arranging travel to places such as Chicago or New York.
“Why should you have to travel state to state to get medical services that you needed? That was, again, humiliating, but at least they were safe, and that made a big difference,” she said.
At the time, Rev. Yeo was the only woman in the Milwaukee area’s clergy consultation service.
“The word got around and I probably had double the share of people coming as many of the others did,” she recalled. “I saw people with all kinds of problems. Many, if not most, were very young. I saw girls as young as 13. And I saw a woman who was 50.”
Their reasons for ending their pregnancies ranged widely.
“Some of the issues there were health,” Rev. Yeo said, and in addition, there were situations such as “teenagers unready to become parents, acute depression following a pregnancy, living in dangerous circumstances with an abusive partner.”
Having been ordained as a United Church of Christ minister, Rev. Yeo’s “ministry was to women. It was a passionate and a compassionate calling. It was, for Elinor, a fierce calling,” said the Rev. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister emeritus at Old South Church.
“In a patently patriarchal world, a dangerous and an unjust world, Elinor poured everything she had into protecting these young women. She fought for them, she defended them, she accompanied them, and getting ordained was part of that strategy,” Taylor said.
As ordained ministers, clergy could protect patient confidentiality while counseling women.
“Jesus asked us to be gentle as doves and sly as foxes,” Taylor said, “and I think this was her being sly.”
Born on Feb. 14, 1934, in Manhattan, N.Y., Elinor Lockwood was the oldest of three daughters whose parents were Dr. John Lockwood, a physician and researcher, and Dorothy Tufts Lockwood.
Rev. Yeo grew up mostly in Englewood, N.J., where she graduated from Dwight-Englewood School before going to Smith College, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree.
She received a master’s degree in 1958 from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and met Richard Yeo when they were campus ministers at Boston University.
They married in 1960 and had three children. He served in campus ministry at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., before they moved to Milwaukee in 1968.
As Rev. Yeo directed the Women’s Health Organization clinic, all three of her sons at various points “were clinic guards,” said her son Jonathan of Newton. “We also had protests in front of our house occasionally.”
In one incident that drew media attention, a protester outside the clinic threatened to set off a bomb. Rev. Yeo phoned her husband for help. When Richard tried to photograph the protester, the man attacked him, breaking his arm so badly that he had to be hospitalized.
Rev. Yeo also served on and chaired the board of what was then the National Abortion Rights Action League.
In the video interview, contemplating the fate of reproductive rights then and now, she asked: “Who is going to make these decisions? Is it going to be the government? Is it going to be the president? Is it going to be a court? Or is it going to be the woman? That’s what it comes down to.”
In addition to her husband, Richard; their sons Jonathan and Matthew; and their granddaughter Ellie; Rev. Yeo leaves another son, Peter of Washington, D.C.; two sisters, Marcia Hincks of Bloomfield, Conn., and Dede Jamison of Palo Alto, Calif.; and five other grandchildren.
A memorial service was held Sunday in Old South Church, where Rev. Yeo had been chaplain to the Festival Choir.
“One of her favorite things was to be involved with the Festival Choir. She loved being part of a musical family,” Jonathan said.
“She prayed with them before they sang,” Taylor said. “She loved them and they loved her back.”
When Rev. Yeo and her husband left Milwaukee for Greater Boston, she worked at Boston City Mission, where she helped arrange financial assistance for needy families.
“If I had to choose one thing that animated her, I would say that it was her love of children,” Matthew wrote for his eulogy. “Not just her love for her own three children, or for her six grandchildren, but for all of God’s children.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.