Contemporary Abortion Politics: Good for the Jews?


Cross-posted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive blog.

This title is, admittedly, at least partially tongue in cheek. It refers to an old Jewish joke from my childhood, where any topic, no matter how seemingly unrelated, always came back to this question. But on a more serious note, the centrality of the abortion issue in this presidential election season has led me to conclude that the policies promoted recently by anti-choice forces in Congress are not good for any woman, whether Jewish or not. Moreover, the unprecedented harshness of some current abortion proposals, which reflect a jaw-dropping misogyny, has spurred me, a long time observer of the abortion conflict, to reflect on various Jewish connections to this contentious issue.

In particular, a bill passed in Congress, the Orwellian named “Protect Life” Act, H.R. 358, which permits hospitals to deny women abortions in life threatening situations, and even to refuse these women referrals to other facilities, violates my most basic understanding of Jewish ethics. Although I have studied the abortion conflict since the 1970s and thought I was beyond shock, the “Protect Life Act”—which passed with 251 House members voting in favor— stunned me. Did these 251 members of Congress really believe in what they were voting for? Were they really prepared to let their wives and daughters—and in the case of those women legislators who voted for this bill, themselves—go to such hospitals in the case of a life-threatening pregnancy? I think it’s fair to say the answer to this question is absolutely not. Rather, I suspect that these politicians assumed that the only people monitoring such votes were a crucial part of their base, the hard-core anti-choicers, who “score” each abortion-related vote, and that no one else was paying attention. And that probably would have been the case, had Todd Akin not uttered his infamous comment about “legitimate rape,” leading to more scrutiny of the abortion positions held by both parties. (The bill has not been brought up in the Senate and therefore is not current law).

What does all this have to do with the Jews? There do exist divisions in the Jewish community around abortion: Orthodox Jews officially oppose abortion in most situations, while Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and non-affiliated Jews overwhelmingly  support abortion rights, often very strongly. But Jewish law makes very clear that the life of a pregnant woman takes precedence over that of a fetus, and indeed insists upon an abortion in such cases. Therefore the “Protect Life” Act mentioned above, if it ever did become law, would have no support in any sector of Jewish community.

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