Commentary Religion

The Right to An Abortion As a Jewish Moral Value

Bonnie Margulis

The Jewish moral imperative of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – makes safeguarding reproductive rights a vital Jewish moral value.

The Jewish community is deeply concerned about the effects of an article published and syndicated last week about a Jewish crisis pregnancy group called In Shifra’s Arms—actually, it’s a website that offers a variety of services to dissuade Jewish women from having an abortion. This group is an anomaly – the only known Jewish service of its kind – yet the article suggests it reflects a standard view in Judaism. Speaking from the perspective of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we need to speak out lest this article contribute to the further erosion of the reproductive rights of all of us.

The Jewish moral imperative of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – makes safeguarding reproductive rights a vital Jewish moral value.

But, what makes reproductive choice specifically a Jewish issue? There are three major Jewish teachings that make it clear that the Jewish community cannot be silent on issues of reproductive freedom.

The first is the explicit Jewish teaching on the issue of abortion. The Mishnah teaches us, in Oholot 7.6:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

If a woman has (life-threatening) difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. Once its head has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another.

Rabbinic commentators and legalists throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times agree that therapeutic abortion is not only warranted, it is actually mandated in Jewish law in cases where the woman’s life is at stake. For while we greatly value the potential life of the fetus, it cannot take precedence over the existing life of the woman.

Of course, some authorities come down on the side of strict interpretation, and would limit abortion to only the gravest of situations. But others are more lenient, and allow abortions in cases of physical or even psychological harm to the woman, and the interpretations of “harm” vary widely. As Rabbi Moses Sofer, the 19th century scholar, wrote, “No woman is required to build up the world by destroying herself.”

The second major issue of vital importance to the American Jewish community is the integrity of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and freedom from government interference. This one sentence in the United States Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” has been the foundation for the success of the Jewish community in this country. Without this guarantee, we would be mere guests in this country, as we have been in so many other countries throughout our history, living at the sufferance of the rulers and of our neighbors.

This guarantee is eroded by the Religious Right’s efforts to have their narrow view of when life begins become the law of the land. Judaism has no consensus on when life begins. Indeed, in Judaism’s attitudes toward life-threatening pregnancy, it seems clear that the fetus is only considered potential life, not actual life. Attempts by the Religious Right to enshrine in law ideas about when life begins, or about the morality of abortion, threaten to strip away once and for all our right as Jews to believe and practice our own religious teachings.

Finally, because we are talking about so much more than abortion, because we are talking about the social and economic imbalances and injustice in our society that both makes abortion necessary and so often makes it inaccessible to those who need it, I believe we are commanded by God, the prophets and our own moral consciences to speak out to ensure justice and freedom of choice for all women everywhere.

Most mitzvot are to be fulfilled as the occasion arises. There are only two instances where we are actively enjoined to seek out opportunities to fulfill a particular commandment. They are “Seek peace and pursue it” and “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” When Jews advocate for reproductive freedom, we are pursuing justice for women and seeking peace among the diverse religious communities of this country. And this is truly holy work.

News Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.

News Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.