From the Editor

Abortion Rights, Abortion Access: Lessons in Empathy

I spend a lot of time on college campuses, speaking with students about what worries or provokes them. Sooner or later we get to the persistent stereotyping of Jews, especially Jewish women (still prevalent. believe it or not, on a lot of campuses). And we almost always talk about definitions of feminism and fear of feminism (still a problem, believe it or not; you can read what high schoolers say on this subject on page 18 in this issue). Students I meet with ruminate, much more realistically than in years past, about gender inequality in the workplace, about how to combine work with childbearing (only the females raise this issue), about the glass ceiling, the concrete ceiling and, as one rabbinical student put it, the stained-glass ceiling (not completely shattered yet, believe it or not).

Add to these concerns a new consciousness among students about a dormant worry many women (and men) had thought we’d not have to reawaken, or revisit: the possible confiscation of reproductive freedoms. These freedoms include the right to safe and legal abortion guaranteed by the Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade. Some state legislatures are chipping away at this right by putting impediments in front of women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies. And this in the face of mounting evidence that children born to mothers who did not want to carry the pregnancy to term are more likely to have unhappy childhoods scarred by neglect, abuse, and, later, by crime.

I suspect that I’m not telling you anything new. But there’s a surprise. Or at least I was surprised. On one campus this spring, I told the students that I feared any obstacles that might delay a woman’s right to obtain a safe abortion. These impediments include parental consent or notification laws, the new Federal “Unborn Victims of Violence” Act, mergers of nonsectarian hospitals with Catholic hospitals leading to a virtual ban on abortions in some locales, shrinking numbers of physicians willing to endure personal risk to perform abortions, medical school curricula that don’t prepare doctors adequately to perform therapeutic abortions. My list went on. Our discussion turned to recent legislation in Virginia mandating a 24-hour wait between when a woman decides with her doctor to undergo an abortion and when she can actually have the procedure. Hearing this, an articulate junior, who described herself as staunchly in favor of abortion rights, declared, “I support a woman’s right to have an abortion, but I think it’s good to be spiritually prepared for such a thing. I don’t think a 24-hour wait is a bad thing. It won’t put the woman in any more danger, and it gives her a chance to get ready emotionally for the abortion.”

I was ready to weep. Then to rail.
Instead, I took a deep breath and told the students—men and women, all sitting around having a civilized, intelligent conversation—that they were very privileged to have the luxury for spiritual preparation, as good an idea as it might seem. Imagine, I suggested, that you are a poor, rural woman who can’t afford bus fare twice to the town where you’ve just had your pregnancy confirmed. Imagine that you’re a teenager who has managed to escape from an abusive home once to get to a clinic or hospital, but that you might not be able to do it again the next day. Imagine that you have other kids at home and can’t get a babysitter for them again. Imagine that your husband will beat you or kill you if he finds out you ended a pregnancy. Imagine that yon took risks to get this far, but that your courage or your money or your time or your support system or your luck might not hold for another day.

I’m recounting to you here, in calm solitude at my desk, what I told the students, but I had a hard time that afternoon keeping a lid on my own emotions. I was shocked at the lack of empathy—which here is just another term for a lack of understanding of someone else’s circumstances—that this young woman inadvertently revealed. She had not realized, or she had forgotten, that there are people out there who might not be like me and thee.

I forget too, sometimes. To do tikkun olam you have to actually be able to see, or to imagine you’re seeing, people other than yourself, unlike yourself I confronted my own shortcomings in this regard when, one bitterly cold afternoon this winter, I happened upon an elderly woman on a Boston sidewalk.

She had on a thin coat, cotton stockings and worn gloves, and her hand was reaching out. My daughter YaeI and I walked over to give her some money. (The Talmud instructs us not to question the validity of the need of a beggar; the act of asking is enough indication of want.) This woman looked at us, at our bare heads. She thanked us and then, pointing to Yael. said, “You should put on a hat. Both of you should. It’s too cold to be out like that.” While I’d thought that we would comfort her with our random charity, she made our day warmer with her concern. Mere was a complete stranger, in need herself ready to focus on what she perceived as the needs of others, even if it was just our need for her kind advice. She actually looked at us and saw us. I’d been feeling virtuous, beneficent, until I realized that she’d surprised me with her humanity, even with her need to be a bit bossy. I had seen her, I think, as just one more street person. I’d treated her respectfully. I had met her eyes. I had followed Maimonides’ precept to give cheerfully. But I was surprised nonetheless that this woman turned out to be like me in some ways—worried about the comfort of a young girl in the cold, maybe herself a mother too. Like the college student I silently railed against, I too needed a reminder of the bridge between self and other.

We may ourselves not be women who will suffer the burdens of unwanted pregnancies or the nightmare of searching for a legal abortion as the clock ticks and the fetus grows larger. But other women, maybe our own sisters or classmates or daughters, are going to be victimized by legislators if we don’t mobilize ourselves. We want to protect our own rights to safe and legal abortion, sure, but also the rights of women who may not have our freedoms or support systems, our microphones, printing presses and list serves. All of us—college students and Jewish organizations and professional associations and social change advocates— need to become as vocal as we can (even to shout in unladylike ways, if necessary), vigilant in safeguarding not only the right to choose, but also full access so that all women can exercise this right.