Jewish Women and Reproductive Rights in the 21st Century

Think Tank

Survey after survey reveals that the vast majority of Jewish women are pro-choice. Biblical and rabbinic Judaism sanction abortion, especially when the life of the woman is threatened physically or mentally; do not equate abortion with murder {Exodus 21); and do not consider a fetus as a person (Mishnah Ohalot 8:7). Judaism also endorses the use of mechanical contraceptives; even in the earliest historical periods, Jewish women used contraceptive sponges called mokh.

To the question of how many children a couple arc expected to have in order to fulfill the Biblical command to “Be fruitful and multiply,” the rabbinical answer was, “Two”: a male and a female. And if the couple produced two of the same sex, the obligation was fulfilled after the birth of the third child. From then on, a couple was free from further childbearing, though that did not always happen.

Clearly, Judaism supports the pro-choice agenda. If some Jews do not, it may be for reasons sociological rather than theological. There are Jews who feel they have an obligation to have large families to counteract the effects of the Holocaust.

Today, the pro-choice option is in danger of being silenced by the White House and a Republican-dominated Congress. The current president’s first official act upon assuming office was to resurrect the “gag rule” which barred healthcare providers who were receiving American family planning assistance from counseling women about abortion, and of course prohibited them from providing any abortion services, even with their own money. That single act cost the Planned Parenthood Federation of America International an estimated $17 million, and may result in up to a million and a half unwanted pregnancies, mostly to poor women in third world countries.

Women’s rights to reproductive health and freedom are under siege, threatened here and abroad by a massive charge from America’s “right brigade.” The present administration and its cohorts in Congress use every conceivable device—executive orders, regulations, legal briefs, legislative measures, and key appointments to limit reproductive rights. All reveal a pattern of “assault and destroy”:

The constitutional guarantee to abortion is literally a heartbeat away from being overturned. The death or resignation of one Supreme Court justice could mean the end of Roe v Wade.

The President shows a clear and insidious pattern of trying to pack the federal judiciary with anti-choice appointees.

Attorney General John Ashcroft supports a congressional action called the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which would allow government-supported healthcare providers in the U.S. to decline to include abortion in their reproductive health services. Under this act, hospitals and HMOs could even forbid their doctors from mentioning to their female patients that abortion is a legal option.

This administration has declared war on sex education. “Abstinence Only” programs, now in 35% of the nation’s public schools, are costing $50 million in tax dollars. Scientifically accurate information about contraception and abortion has disappeared from all government websites. Much of the curricula for these programs is written by members of anti-choice religious bodies such as First Resort. They describe abortion as “killing a baby” and students are told that such medical actions “tear off their arms and legs.”

Federal financing for research on all new embryonic stem cell lines has been prohibited. President Bush considers such research immoral because, in his view, human embryos are destroyed when the cells are extracted. There is no clear scientific evidence to support that belief What is clear is the loss of research capacity that could lead to breakthroughs in treatments for diseases like Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes, and spinal cord injuries.

This same thought seems to motivate Tommy Thompson, Secretary for Health and Human Services to make “unborn children” rather than pregnant women eligible for coverage under the Children’s Health Insurance program. This is one of the cleverest and foulest tricks ever perpetrated on the American public. By seeking to extend care to an unborn child, the government illegally grants a fetus the same status it would grant to a born child.

Lest anyone think this proposed act is part of some benevolent concern for children, examine this administration’s current budget proposals:

An analysis of the House of Representative’s budget by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the administration’s proposed cuts in child nutrition programs threaten to eliminate school lunches for 2.4 million low-income children. The cut in Medicaid would lead to the elimination of health coverage for 13.6 million children, mostly from poor families. The cut in the food stamp program would lead to a reduction in the average benefit from an already lean 91 cents per meal’ to 84 cents. Cuts in budget will negatively and seriously affect children of the poorest sector of our society.

As if all this is not sufficiently outlandish, this administration now seeks to elevate the status of a fetus or even a fertilized egg to that of a person with rights equal to, or perhaps exceeding, those of a born woman. This is theologically appalling. The proposed action is even more reprehensible coming from politicians, many of whom make a fetish out of their alleged devotion to “Christian religious values” and frequently make public expressions of their Christian piety. The equation of fetus with child reveals both their ignorance and their dismissal of religious law.

The Hebrew Bible deals explicitly with this subject:

If men strive together and wound a pregnant woman so that her fruit be expelled, but ito harm befall her, then shall he be fined as her husband shall assess, and the matter placed before the judges…

                  —Exodus 21.22

Jewish Biblical commentators have repeatedly examined the ramifications of this text and in every instance come to legal conclusions based on their conviction that the fetus was not a child. In rabbinic terms, “It is not a living soul.” The Mishnah, the first rabbinic commentary on Biblical text, completed during the third century C.E., carries the matter further:

A woman who is having difficulty giving birth, it is permitted to cut up the fetus inside her womb and take it out limb by limb because her life takes precedence…

                   —Mishnah Ohalot 7:6

In March 2003, Congress enacted legislation banning “partial birth” abortions. The phrase is a deception, but from a public relations angle it is quite clever, designed to attract the sympathetic support of the unknowing. There is no such thing as a “partial birth.” A woman either gives birth or she does not. The banned medical procedure is more exactly titled “dilation and extraction,” used when an abortion at a late stage is indicated. It is rarely used. Of the million and a half abortions performed annually in the United States, fewer than 1500 of these late-term abortions arc done and then only when the fetus threatens the mother’s life. Congressional behavior was a transparent charade, played for the radical right.

In a stunning editorial on January 12, 2003, The New York Times observed:

“Most Americans would be shocked at the lengths American representatives are going to in their international war against women s rights to control their own bodies.”

There is simply no avoiding the obvious conclusion. The Republican Party, led by the ideology of its presidential leader, neither believes in nor supports women’s health or the rights of women to make decisions about their own reproductive lives. As a civil libertarian, and as a Jew who comes to his support of women’s reproductive rights from an understanding of Biblical and rabbinic Judaism, I am appalled by what cruel and thoughtless laws are doing to women here and throughout the world.

Nor do I forget that Dr. Barnett Slepian was murdered by an anti-Semite on a Sabbath eve, October 28, 1998, after returning from the Reform synagogue where he had gone to remember the anniversary of his father’s death. Slepian was the fifth obstetrician shot by a gunman who made a ritual of targeting a doctor every autumn in western New York or eastern Canada to mark the November 11 date that some antiabortion militants call “remembrance day for the unborn.” Four of the five victims were Jews. Canadian authorities suspect the fifth was chosen because the shooter thought he was Jewish. Shortly before the doctor’s death, Buffalo police received a poster that showed Slepian’s face with the words “Jew” and “Killer” scrawled across it.

As disturbing as all of this is, even more frightening is the recent New York Times story headline: “Surprise, Mom. I Am Against Abortion.” (March 30, 2003.) The story describes a growing conservative trend among teenage and college-age women that contrasts the attitudes of their counterparts a generation earlier The article speculates on the reasons why pregnancy rates among teenage girls 15- 19 have declined 19% between 1990 and 1997, thus making abortion less necessary. Emphasis has shifted from the rights of women to the rights of a fetus, the result of successful propaganda by compulsory-pregnancy groups. Abortion rights are taken for granted. Yet as one young woman observed: “For my generation, we have always grown up knowing we could have an abortion. I look at being pro-choice as being American, to have free will. I would hope that mothers do decide to keep their babies but I just want women to be able to make up their own minds.”

The struggle in American society today over reproductive matters is a deadly serious one. Not just reproductive freedom, but freedom itself is at risk, the very soul of this nation. Choice is essentially a spiritual idea that affirms that no one has the right to trespass against my conscience or legislate my governance of my own body. The right of any government arm to proscribe my beliefs is a very narrow one. These are basic, fundamental rights, enshrined in the Constitution and in its First Amendment. It is what makes our society so precariously unique. Fetal politics stake out the battleground on which we must wage that war for preservation of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Rabbi Balfour Brickner is Senior Rabbi Emeritus at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York. His most recent book is Finding God in the Garden (Little, Brown, 2003).