Reproductive Rights: An Update

In this Administration’s continuing assault on women’s rights, President Bush in November signed the so-called “partial birth abortion” bill, which was twice vetoed by President Clinton. The law, the first to criminal an abortion procedure, bans a form of late-term abortion without any exceptions, even if the mother’s health is in danger. Its language, critics say, is deliberately vague and could be interpreted to apply to any form of abortion. Jewish women’s organizations, which had lobbied against the bill when it was in Congress, are now helping in the push to overturn it.

Ellen Witman, co-director for Washington operations of the National Council of Jewish Women, said that NCJW was waiting to see what amicus curiae briefs would soon be circulating. “We may join them,” she said. Ditto for the American Jewish Congress, and Hadassah. “We will sign amicus briefs, and may also consider taking the lead in filing briefs,” said Shelley Klein, Hadassah’s advocacy director. Klein also said that Hadassa his reconsidering their longstanding position of not lobbying on the appointment of judges. The reason, she said, is that the fight to preserve reproductive rights is increasingly being waged in the courts. NCJW, on the other hand, has been involved in judicial lobbying since 2002, when the organization began its “Benchmark” campaign to advocate for a federal judiciary that will preserve reproductive choice.

On the very day that the “partial birth” bill became law, Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation were immediately challenging its constitutionality in the courts. Within a few days, federal judges in three states—New York, California and Nebraska—ruled to halt implementation of the ban. But during the gap between the signing of the law and the judges’ rulings, many Planned Parenthood clinics stopped performing second trimester abortions on patients. The reason? According to Nassau County Planned Parenthood president and CEO Karen Pearl, the organization was afraid that its physicians and staff might end up in jail, after being charged with performing an illegal procedure.

During those 48 or so hours when Planned Parenthood could not perform abortions, many poor women were deprived of the right to self-determination. But the ramifications of the law go even further than this awful scenario. So basic are women’s reproductive rights in Jewish law that Rabbi Renni Altman, associate rabbi of Temple Beth El of Great Neck, New York, made the fight to save Roe the subject of her Yom Kippur morning sermon this year “Rabbis throughout history have viewed abortion as morally required in instances where the health of the mother is in jeopardy,” wrote Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, in a recent editorial in the Forward newspaper. “The persons who fashioned the current law fail to affirm this position, and I fail to see why they should enjoy a moral monopoly on this issue.”