Last week, contributing editor Sarah Tuttle-Singer told the story of her Jewish-funded abortion in college. The following post is in response:
I was attending an all women, progressive college during the time when abortion became legal in the United States. I vividly remember discussing the issue with my friends and with the medical student I was dating the year of Roe v. Wade. Many of us were former yeshiva students and we struggled over Judaism’s teachings about the reverence for life and the Orthodox disapproval of birth control and how to reconcile that with the real-life, practical situations that we knew existed.
At the time, there was no medical ethics course, especially one based on Jewish law and tradition, to guide our way. (By now I have taken, and taught, several.) We knew that desperate women were dying from illegal, unsafe abortions. We knew that bringing a baby into the world and taking care of it when you weren’t ready was a terrible thing to contemplate. That giving up a baby that you weren’t ready to take care of was equally terrible. And that for many women, the thought of giving a child up for adoption was as terrible as were the other options.
It was easy for each of us to imagine a situation in which we would choose an abortion. And if we could imagine making such a choice, how could we deny someone else’s choice even if it was for a different reason? Pro-choice was the only logical position for us. And pro-choice was not, is not, anti-life. Pro-choice is pro-life, too. Pro-life in the sense that women are entitled to autonomy and agency, that children are entitled to come into a world that is ready for them and can nurture them. Those of us who are pro-choice believe that being “pro-life” means facing life with all its contradictions, difficulties, and complications. And respecting a life that others choose even if we might choose otherwise.
Although this is not the space to explore Judaism’s position on abortion (see MyJewishLearning.com), it is fair to say that it is complex and nuanced, and very different from the conservative Christian position. And although Jewish law frowns on abortion as a form of birth control (who doesn’t?), it is very sensitive to the well-being of the potential mother and how a birth would affect her physical and mental health. It is also important to note that fetuses do not have the status of personhood in Jewish law. One cannot “murder” an unborn child. In fact, a baby achieves full personhood only when it reaches the age of thirty days.
Many years ago, I was friendly with a woman who had two severely disabled children. Everything that could have gone wrong, had gone wrong. She very much wanted another child but could not bear the agony of having yet another handicapped child. She was very religious and approached one of the leading Orthodox Jewish rabbinic authorities. Based on the threat to her mental health that having another sick child posed, and her desire to have more children, the rabbi told her that if she became pregnant with an affected fetus, she should (not “could,” should) abort. Happily she went on to have two healthy children. Had abortion still been illegal at that time, she would not have risked having those children. Other women abort because if they did not, their educational, occupational or financial futures would be compromised to the point that would be equally unacceptable or unbearable to them.
Although Sarah alluded to it at the end of her piece, she did not specifically mention the strain and struggle women face in deciding to end a pregnancy. Psychic pain, fear, and desperation are usually part of the abortion story. Sometimes guilt and shame are, too. Choosing abortion is almost never easy and is usually very, very sad despite confidence in the rightness of the decision.
I had never heard of a Jewish organization that, as Sarah mentioned, helps women pay for abortions, although I do know of two which will financially assist someone who wants to keep a pregnancy and raise the child. I am proud that the Jewish community supports choice by putting some of its resources towards helping women during the very trying time of facing an unplanned pregnancy.
As we said in the 60s and 70s, the personal is political and the political is personal. I believe that Sarah’s story reminds us that we have a moral obligation to politically and financially commit to sustaining a society which protects a woman’s right to choose. Jews have a religious mandate to make the world a better place, one which honors life in all its complexity. We must stand shoulder to shoulder (and womb to womb) with our sisters, no matter their choices, and guarantee that women retain autonomy over their bodies, that children come into the world healthy and wanted, born to women who are physically and emotionally ready, willing and able to raise the children they conceive and carry.