Lisa Harris received her first piece of hate mail when she was in medical school in the early 1990s. A pamphlet with the words “bottom feeder” arrived in her mailbox, and she was so shocked by it that she took it home with her to show her family. When her mother saw it, she told Lisa that she recognized the images: “My mom said, I’ve seen those before–those are Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda images. The word ‘Jew’ had been substituted for ‘abortionist.’”
The intimidation tactic didn’t work. Harris graduated from medical school and became an OB/GYN, including abortion provision in her practice. “I’m a doctor and I choose not to abandon women when they need an abortion…the idea that I answer the call to provide abortion seems completely consistent with just being a doctor,” she told Kveller.
Yet providing abortion care comes with a special dose of stigma and harassment, particularly from anti-abortion advocates, whether in her mailbox or in front of her clinic. And while they may have seen an uptick in harassment and violent threats since the election (just last month, one clinic where Dr. Sara Imershein works was evacuated due to a bomb threat), abortion access has been under siege for years.
Knowing that abortion providers have been injured or killed because of their work was among the reasons that led Dr. Harris to join a synagogue. “I wanted to have a larger community for raising my daughter than just my family…if something were to happen to me, I wanted there to be another community to help raise her and instill values I would’ve instilled in her.”
Most doctors don’t have to think about how their children will be raised in the event that extremists target them, but abortion providers do. I talked to five abortion providers about how their Judaism influences their work, how they talk to their children about what they do, and what motivates them to carry on despite near-constant threats.
Each of the abortion providers I spoke with described the resonance between their Judaism, their parenthood, and their decision to provide abortion care. “I have this skill, and it relieves suffering, so it is a mitzvah to do the right thing,” said Dr. Imershein, an abortion provider in the DC area. “I know that I’ve saved more lives doing abortions than I had in 30 years of practice. No one should be able to step in the way of what I consider to be my moral obligation.”
Others expressed deep gratitude for Judaism’s stance on abortion, which is relatively unique compared to many other religions. Dr. Shelley Sella, an abortion provider in New Mexico, went to Yeshiva up through sixth grade. “There was never anything negative about abortion in my upbringing,” she says. “I didn’t have to struggle to mesh Judaism and abortion together, it just made sense.”
Dr. Sella shared that she’s taken care of women of all religious backgrounds: “Some have had to struggle with their religious beliefs and the fact that they were having an abortion. I haven’t seen this tension, even among the Orthodox Jewish women that I have cared for. I don’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist—but Judaism’s view is that the woman’s life comes first.”
Like Dr. Sella, Dr. Harris noticed that in Jewish communities, “abortion has always seemed to be a part of life. It happens, and that’s it. “ She had a sense that because of this, Jewish physicians were disproportionately providing abortions compared to physicians who identified with other religions, so she teamed up with some colleagues to investigate this. And she was right: the study found that Jewish OB/GYNs have less moral opposition to abortion, and even when they disagree with their patient’s reason for seeking an abortion, a Jewish OB/GYN is more likely to help that patient get the abortion she needs than an OB/GYN of another religion.
Harris is still exploring why this might be the case, but has some guesses: “Jews have a history of other people trying to force their beliefs on us. So in Judaism, it might be the height of unethical behavior to impose your belief on someone else.” Dr. Pam Lotke, an abortion provider in the DC area, recently met with family planning fellows in Texas, some of whom feel like they have to hide the fact that they provide abortions from their parents. “Many Jewish physicians who provide abortion don’t have that separation between their own work and their families and religious communities.”
Debbie Bamberger, a women’s health nurse practitioner, started a Jewish learning group through Kevah, specifically for Jewish abortion providers. During the several months that they met, they learned that there’s nothing in the Torah that prohibits abortion. Bamberger said that this was a life changing moment: “We’ve heard from so many people that the Bible says that abortion is wrong, and it’s just not true.”
It’s one thing to wrestle with these dilemmas at work, but how do Jewish abortion providers convey these complex concepts to their children? Dr. Lotke talked about how the conversation with her kids has changed over the years: “Clearly you start with, ‘mommy is a baby doctor.’ They understand that there are babies in people’s bellies and I deliver them. Later, we started to talk about sex, contraception, and the fact that sometimes you get pregnant from sex and you don’t want to have a baby, so I can help with that too.”
Dr. Imershein remembered talking to her children about being an abortion provider after anti-abortion advocates papered her neighborhood with flyers accusing her of being a murderer. “I said, sometimes a woman is pregnant, and for whatever reason, she can’t have the baby. I can make her un-pregnant. Some people think that’s wrong, but I can help these people, so I do. My children responded matter of factly.”
Just like any conversation with children about complex issues, there’s a give and take, particularly with teenagers. Bamberger brought her sons with her to the Women’s March in January, where they carried signs that said, “proud supporter of my [abortion provider] mom.” A few months later, however, her son came to her and asked if she feels sad about providing abortions or if her patients feel sad.
“I said that…there’s a lot of emotions women can have because it’s complicated, but I don’t feel sad because I’m providing women a service that empowers them to make decisions in their lives,” she told him. Nonetheless, he was upset and lashed out. “It’s crazy that no one has called me a murderer except my own child,” she says. Yet Bamberger is happy to give her son the room he needs to explore his feelings about abortion, and hopes that he can recognize the value and importance of her work, knowing his views may evolve over time as he matures: “It was a very 14-year-old thing to say to a mom.”
It’s not so much that providing abortion care has influenced the way these doctors parent their children, but that being a parent has made several of these physicians even more committed to the work they do, because they understand the stakes. “It’s not that easy to be a parent, and it’s probably a lot lovelier to do it when you want to, and are writing your own life story rather than living one that was thrust upon you without choices,” Dr. Harris said.
Bamberger agrees: “I’m in an amazing marriage, have an equal co-parent, and I wanted to have children. I have lots of resources available to me for support—and parenting is still hard. For a woman who doesn’t want to be a parent or have another kid, to have to be forced to have that kid—it’s really upsetting.”