Ilyse Hogue on Abortion Storytelling, Fighting Trump — and Being a Jewish Mom – Kveller
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Ilyse Hogue on Abortion Storytelling, Fighting Trump — and Being a Jewish Mom

Last year, Ilyse Hogue became the first woman to share her abortion story on stage at the Democratic National Convention.

Hogue, the President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, is no stranger to being bold and outspoken in her advocacy work. Growing up Jewish in Texas prepared her for a lifetime of fighting for what she believes in no matter the odds. She draws on that experience to fight for abortion rights in a climate where the Press Secretary denies the events of the Holocaust and republicans desperately pull out every trick in the book to withhold health care from millions of Americans.

Even as NARAL and Hogue are currently fighting hard against the new administration’s healthcare and judicial choices, I talked to Ilyse about what motivates her as a Jew, activist, and parent.

This month, Willie Parker released his book about how Christianity influenced his desire to provide abortions. We hear a lot about how people’s Christianity inspires them to act on abortion, whether in a way that’s compassionate like Dr. Parker or otherwise, like with anti-abortion protestors. We hear less frequently from people who identify with other religions on how that impacted their abortion rights work. So, has being Jewish has influenced your advocacy work for abortion rights?

I was very much brought up in the tikkun olam tradition of Judaism, and understood that part of the way we live our faith is by giving back and making sure we are actually caring for all of those amongst us, including those with the least amount of power. That was instilled with me at a young age. I had the unique experience of growing up Jewish in Texas, which is very different from growing up Jewish in New York. We were always thought of as “others,” and I encountered anti-Semitism at a young age that taught me a lot about needing to speak up for my values. I learned to speak up not just because I was different from others, but to speak up for anyone who is different from the dominant culture.

What kinds of anti-Semitism did you experience growing up in Texas?

It was little things, like being told on the playground in the first grade that I killed Jesus. I was not offended by that, but I was confused by it, and I went home and asked my mom, “Did we kill Jesus?” and watching her reaction. In the fifth or sixth grade, there was a dance that was happening at a country club in Dallas, where I grew up, and I wasn’t allowed to attend because the country club didn’t admit Jews. This was in the 1980s.

How do you think that influenced your pursuit of progressive activism in general and abortion rights activism in particular?

I don’t think of Judaism as a driving force for my movement into abortion rights advocacy per se, except for the fact abortion was never in any way controversial in my family. Even growing up in the South, in the most anti-choice state in the union, my family was always very pro-choice and open about that. But Judaism pushed me into progressive activism— I was very, very much raised on stories of the Holocaust and lost family members in the Holocaust. From a very young age, I understood that we have two choices when faced with danger and injustice: to fight or not to fight. I knew that if we weren’t fighting for those around us, we would never be safe ourselves.

With regards to abortion rights advocacy, it’s been really telling to me that so much of the oppression is being done in the name of religion. It’s not religion writ large—it’s one specific religion, evangelical Christianity. In Judaism, there’s a very different set of rules and laws that govern how we think about pregnancy and when life begins. So it’s a religious affront when people universalize their religion and turn it into law at the expense of what my religion teaches and the ability of everyone, regardless of whether they have a religious affiliation, to live on their own terms. That’s strengthened my resolve. Every time someone says, “You can’t have contraception or an abortion after 20 weeks because my religion says that’s wrong,” that’s not only dangerous to women but actually antithetical to what our country was founded on, which is freedom from religious persecution.

You talk quite openly about your reproductive experiences: having miscarriages, having an abortion, and a few years ago, having twins. What’s it been like to be so candid about that?

It’s not something that comes naturally. I’ve been as open as I feel comfortable being in order to advance what I believe are critical values, while maintaining some privacy around my family. We try extremely hard to keep our kids out of the media. That’s partly because that should be their decision about how public they want to be about their lives as they get older, and partly because I’m afraid for them. Opponents of the work that we do are hateful at best and dangerous at worst, and it’s terrifying as a mom to think that they’d come after my kids. To the extent that I’ve been able to get over the personal discomfort and fear about being open, it’s because I draw a lot of support from my community, including the Jewish community around me who are relentlessly supportive. My parents also draw support from their Jewish community when abortion opponents come after them.

I keep coming back to what I think is inherent in my Jewish upbringing—we are presented almost daily with a choice to stand up for what we believe in or not, and we’re all making the best choices we can at any given moment. 

I’ve heard from lots of folks that religion can really shape your reproductive experiences no matter what that is: birth, miscarriage, abortion, adoption, etc. For some people, connecting to religion helps them heal, while for others, religion makes them feel pretty judged and alone. I’m wondering how being Jewish impacted your reproductive experiences.

There is a privilege in coming from a culture like Judaism that doesn’t instill guilt on you for reproductive choices. I live with that privilege. There are young women who work with us who were raised in cultures that stigmatize these choices, and I give them more credit because they’ve had to transcend family and culture judgement that I didn’t face. Of course, we all face judgment because we live in a dominant culture that stigmatizes these decisions, even beyond abortion, even judging women based on whether or not they can be a mom. But even if none of us are immune from the culture around us, at least my family and my faith didn’t put that on me. When I had miscarriages, I can’t lie and say I didn’t think maybe it was something I did to cause them. But that message didn’t come from my community, and that’s a source of  strength for me.

Judaism is something that lives inside me as a moral compass, a connection to my family, but I’m not someone who goes to temple every Friday. I’m in an interfaith marriage, and there are lots of people who live more overtly Jewish lives than I do. Since I’ve had my kids, I’m much more active in the Jewish community. We take them to things like the Purim carnival. Part of my experience of being Jewish is that it’s a values framework for how I live, it’s a connection to my heritage that became much more of a priority once I had children and realized that I wanted to connect them to that heritage, too. That’s been a deeply fulfilling experience for me.

How has Judaism impacted your parenting?

One of the things I realized in becoming a parent is how ritual and tradition become much more important, but as a container in which to explore individual connection. I’m trying to create routine that brings Judaism into my kids’ lives, but I also want to do that as a guide and not a dictate for my children, so they can form their own relationship to the religion, the culture, and their sense of heritage. That’s the challenge—providing them with the framework, tools, education, and leaving enough space for interpretation. I believe that Judaism in particular and religions generally are at their best when they’re dynamic. It’s been a fun and interesting challenge for my husband and myself to find that sweet spot of providing them guideposts and an understanding of where they come from, while leaving them enough space to navigate the future on their own. So far Purim seems to be their favorite, since they got to dress up as bears and eat hamantaschen.

I can imagine that parenting twins, running one of the largest abortion rights organizations in the country, and fighting the Trump administration tooth and nail is like trying to do three fulltime jobs at once. When people talk about women in these situations, they often say, “she’s trying to have it all,” while for men, it’s just called life. What advice do you have for women who are trying to balance parenthood, work, and activism and face intense scrutiny for that?

I don’t think there’s such thing a thing as having it all in every moment. You can have pieces of it all at different moments. There are 24 hours in the day—our only job is to figure out what’s most fulfilling for us in carving out those hours. Whatever it is that makes you personally feel grounded, healthy, passionate, and excited, start there. Society tells us to put ourselves last. In my experience, while you can’t put yourself first every moment of every day, if we don’t put ourselves first as much as we can, we’re not good at work, we’re not good parents, we’re not good partners.

Ignore the judgment. There is no right way to do anything—there’s only the way that works for you. Give yourself permission to change—since what feels right today, this week, or this year may not feel right tomorrow, next week, or next year. There’s pressure to make a decision, stick with it, and project to everyone that it’s awesome. But it’s ok to have messiness in your life.

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