Some male rabbis are making pretty strange bedfellows. They appear to be drawn into an alliance with the Christian Right to oppose abortion rights in the guise of lobbying against so-called “partial-birth abortions.” I recently attended part of an all-day conference in Washington which made me feel as if I had stepped into a world where words no longer had meaning, where Jews sound like Bible-thumping evangelical Christians, and where the solid wall we count on to keep church and state separate was viewed as a permeable membrane.
The occasion? A gathering at Catholic University on “Exploring How the Jewish Community Can Work to Reduce Abortion” convened by the Institute for Religious Values and funded by Our Sunday Visitor, a Christian organization. Orthodox rabbis, a few of their Conservative colleagues, and one Reform rabbi (all male) set forth the interviews on abortion and Jewish law (which states that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of a fetus and that, as one has the right to stop a “pursuer,” if the fetus is viewed as a pursuer then abortion is permitted). So what was scary about Jews telling Christians about Jewish precepts on abortion? The fact that many of the rabbis opposed the present state of abortion rights in this country. The conference was convened to spread a broad canopy over the anti-choice position of the Christian Right. And the rabbis and Jewish lay people involved were, it felt to me, uncritical pawns of the Christian Right’s legal crusade against choice.
If the final goal of the anti-choice forces is achieved—namely the banning of abortions altogether—even the most traditional Jew will be unable to follow Jewish law to obtain an abortion when the life of the mother is endangered by the continuation of the pregnancy. All abortions will be made illegal in the United States if the Christian Right has its way with our laws.
The Institute wants to “generate a debate in the Jewish community” and “change the attitudes” of Jewish senators so that they will enact legislation banning “partial-birth abortion,” a tern reiterated, with fists pounded on podiums. According to the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, this is a term with “no independent meaning. . . [it] is not a medical term, nor does it refer to an actual medical procedure. It is a term coined by anti-abortion lobbyists.” One of these, Sandi Merle, a participant identified as “Jewish writer/lyricist” likens “partial-birth abortions” to child abuse and calls for “a single vote of Congress” to ban the procedure.
One of the most pernicious aspects of this cry against “partial-birth abortions” is that the term is so vague that if any such ban is enacted, doctors will fear arrest for all abortions. No specific point in the pregnancy is mentioned as the time when such “partial-birth” abortion would be different from an acceptably legal abortion. At this harrowing time, when all doctors who perform abortions, but especially Jewish doctors, fear they will be killed (or, in the case of one Canadian doctor, maimed by an anti-abortion sniper so that he could no longer work), we don’t need any legislative vagueness that could be deliberately used to challenge the legality of abortions and further harass courageous doctors.
The strategy of the anti-abortion Christian Right has been to chip away at reproductive rights little by little, in the case of this conference by pulling Jews into the legislative lobby in favor of bans on some types of abortion procedures. And now their strategy gets even wilier—along with tying in to abortion rights such issues as parental notification and informed consent (topics also on the day’s program), the right-wing forces now turn their attention to “end of life” issues in the attempt to draw in people opposed to assisted suicide and “euthanasia.” The Washington Post, in a front-page story, described other issues around which the Christian Right is mobilizing, including pressing for legislation that would prevent a relative from deciding to take someone off life support systems. Fearing that they will not be able to stop abortions, they are trying to draw under their umbrella even those who are opposed to managed care, claiming that managed care will restrict the options at the end of life.
Rabbis and other Jews need to keep their wits about them. For Jewish spiritual leaders to allow themselves to appear closely aligned with those who would ban abortion altogether is to mock, it seems to me, the careful distinctions Jewish law sets up to differentiate among circumstances under which abortion is the right choice.