When I visit the small towns in rural West Virginia that are an easy drive from where I live in Washington, DC., I have the sensation of entering an alternate universe. It’s one where I wouldn’t want to stop for too long, since among other indications that I’m in alien terrain are the churches with fake miniature graveyards set up on their front lawns, featuring signs saying things like “We mourn the thousands of babies put to death each year by abortions.”
So you can imagine how appalled I was to learn, when I opened the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week, that Christians aren’t the only ones using manipulative anti-choice rhetoric on abortion. A Jewish anti-choice organization is now rearing its head, too. It’s mission? To provide “Jewish unplanned pregnancy assistance.” And they don’t mean they’ll accompany you to Planned Parenthood. According to the front-page story, the goal of this so-called crisis pregnancy center is to encourage Jewish women who find themselves unintentionally pregnant to continue the pregnancy and either keep the child or relinquish it to adoption. Erica Pelman, its founder, says she has been doing in-person outreach to college students, and to high schoolers at a local Hebrew day school.
The website of her year-old organization, named “In Shifra’s Arms” for the midwife in the Passover story who saved firstborn Jewish sons from being put to death, puts out inaccurate information about abortion risks, including reiterating the utterly disproven hypothesis that abortion increases a woman’s risk of breast cancer—as if someone coping with an unplanned pregnancy doesn’t have enough to worry about.
The site advises on how one can “overcome abortion pressure” and avoid “the emotional risks” of abortion without ever mentioning the psychological consequences of giving up a child for adoption, or the constrictions of having one’s schooling derailed for life. Instead, the organization offers to help young women with an unwanted pregnancy find an internship so they can “lay low” [sic] and not be “embarrassed” by having to attend their college classes with a big belly. Oh—and another wonderful offer—to show them how they can use elastic waistbands to create maternity clothes! Brilliant! And so helpful! What about education for the young mothers? What about financial support for the children? Childcare? Medical care?
There is plenty to find fault with in “crisis pregnancy centers,” which are often really disinformation centers, but this one rankles especially, because their website and Pelman’s comments to the Washington Jewish Week don’t mention the fact that one of Judaism’s strengths is the value placed on life, especially the lives of those already alive—namely, the mothers-to-be. Unlike religious strictures that, say, tell a Catholic woman that the fetus has rights that supersede that of the mother, Judaism privileges the person who is already born.
Not only does Pelman use the rhetoric of right-wing Christian anti-choicers, but she actually admits that she gets her training from them.
The fact is that Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice. And even the most observant Jew can find support in Jewish law for having an abortion if her physical—or mental—health would be impaired by carrying a pregnancy to term. Will In Shifra’s Arms sway large numbers of Jews away from these core pro-choice beliefs? Unlikely. But while Pelman worries about young women choosing abortion because they are “embarrassed” to be pregnant and unwed (as opposed to being concerned about their futures, or their health, or their relationships), her new project is itself an embarrassment—at least in part because it is so callow and so shallow as to pretend it can help shape the future of women when it appears to have neither the resources nor the expertise to do so.
What this group has done is make me less smug. Next time I see the mini faux tombstones in front of a church I’ll remember that Jews, too, are adopting the techniques of the right, including promising more than they can deliver, to influence women’s reproductive choices.
-Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief