Groups Sign on to Abortion Rights Effort

By Ori Nir and E.J. Kessler

Published January 21, 2005, issue of January 21, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — America’s two largest synagogue movements and several major national Jewish agencies are joining a campaign to oppose attempts to outlaw abortion, arguing that reproductive rights are a religious freedom.

The campaign was launched this week by the National Council of Jewish Women on the 32nd anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. It features a letter to members of the U.S. Senate, signed by hundreds of rabbis, saying that the “faith based” decisions they help families make on whether to abort pregnancies “should not be circumscribed by government.”

Most signatories on the letter are Reform or Conservative rabbis, NCJW President Marsha Atkind noted. Several Orthodox rabbis also will sign, she said. That would be significant, because most Orthodox rabbis adhere to a doctrine that bans abortion, except when a pregnancy threatens the mother’s life or health. Orthodox umbrella groups typically abstain — as they did in this case — when coalitions of Jewish groups take collective positions on abortion. One Orthodox rabbi who said he supports the overall message of the letter but would not sign it, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom Talmud Torah in Washington, said that although rabbinic law prohibits abortion “as a baseline,” there are “many nuances involved in this,” which create the potential for government involvement to jeopardize the ability of a rabbi to counsel congregation members on abortion.

Most Jewish groups are pro-choice — as is the overwhelming majority of America’s Jewish population, according to public opinion polls — but the rationale for that position usually is one of an individual’s autonomy over her own body, not as a matter of religious freedom.

The shift in emphasis has a political objective. Atkind said: “The president is a man of faith; he says that faith is extremely important to his identity and that he makes his decisions based on faith. That’s fine, but we ask nothing else for people who are of a different faith.” Pointing out that rabbinic law permits and even mandates abortion in certain circumstances, she added: “The religious right has been very effective in putting out a message that people of faith are anti-choice. We want to show this country and the Senate especially that people of faith are on both sides of the issue.”

Abba Cohen, Washington director for Agudath Israel of America, said that framing the abortion rights as an issue of religious freedom for Jews is “inappropriate and disingenuous” because traditional rabbinic law mainly prohibits abortion, except in specific circumstances. “As long as a bill provides protection for a woman in the very-very narrow circumstances where Jewish law permits or requires an abortion, which is when the life of the mother is in danger, then any kind of limitation on abortion-on-demand is desirable,” said Cohen.

The NCJW-led campaign, which will also include Washington lobbying and public education in local Jewish communities, comes as America’s chief Jewish policy umbrella, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, debates a resolution opposing congressional Republicans’ attempts to block, through a rule change, Senate Democrats’ ability to filibuster President Bush’s judicial nominees.

The JCPA is expected to pass a resolution opposing the Republicans’ so-called “nuclear option” in its annual conference late next month. The Forward has learned that congressional Republicans see the resolution as taking the Democrats’ side on a partisan matter, and are therefore trying to push Jewish groups — especially Orthodox activists with close ties to the GOP — to oppose the resolution.

“Jews should not be on the wrong side of this for political purposes. That’s a mistake. That’s short-term [thinking],” a senior Republican Senate staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The JCPA maintains that the resolution is not a partisan move but merely protects the rights of the Senate minority, whichever party that might be.

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