Mameles Marching For Choice

By Marjorie Ingall

Published April 16, 2004, issue of April 16, 2004.
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The March for Women’s Lives, likely to be the largest pro-choice march ever, will take place April 25 in Washington, D.C. I considered taking Josie, but hauling a 2-year-old by bus to the National Mall (a mall that inexplicably does not contain a Disney store) seems foolhardy. Though I suppose Josie’s arched-back hurling-self-on-the-ground earsplitting tantrum-throwing when she gets overtired might prove a compelling argument for birth control.

Still, Jewish mothers and their children who are not Josie will be out in full force. Among the 1,000-plus organizations co-sponsoring the march (which include, of course, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and the American Civil Liberties Union) are Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women. And this year in particular, I’ve been thinking about how we Jews need to stand up for our own religious values.

Every time a Republican president is elected, we liberals worry about issues such as the right to medical privacy, the possibility that only “abstinence-based” sex education will be taught in schools (despite abundant evidence that it does not work), the probability that resources for AIDS research and people with AIDS will be cut, the likelihood that health care, prenatal care and childcare will become even further out of reach for many women. When our current president’s daddy was elected, I sobbed on my boyfriend’s shoulder on a Cambridge, Mass., street corner, wailing theatrically about moving to Canada. Well, the joke was on me and my drama-queen ways. Shrub makes his daddy look like Bella Abzug.

In the last year alone, our president has successfully pushed the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act” (which contains no exceptions for the health of the mother or for severe fetal anomalies) and the “Unborn Victims of Violence Act” (which bestows personhood on fetuses by granting them separate legal rights, equal to and independent of those of pregnant women). And then there are the Bush administration’s judicial nominations. It’s entertaining to hear the Bushies decry “activist judges” while nominating one aggressively conservative judge after another. Apparently activist judges are judges who are for gay marriage; fair and balanced judges are judges who are anti-choice, anti-civil-rights, anti-environment, anti-gay and pro-business. Got it!

But back to the issue of why this march is different from all other marches: This legislation, equating a fetus with a human being, flies in the face of Halacha, Jewish law. Halacha holds that a fetus doesn’t have the legal status of a human being. This judgment is grounded in Exodus 21, which states that if someone injures a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry, he shall be punished with a fine. But if the pregnant woman dies, the penalty shall be capital punishment. The interpretation is that the fetus does have value, but nothing like that of a full-fledged human. Furthermore, the talmudic commentator Rashi says that the fetus in the womb is lav nefesh hu, not a person, until it actually physically enters the world. So secular laws restricting abortion or access to abortion on the grounds that “life begins at conception” actually use religious doctrine to justify positions that explicitly counter Jewish teachings.

David Adelson, 33, the rabbi of Manhattan’s East End Temple (and Josie’s favorite reader of Lawrence and Karen Kushner’s storybook “Because Nothing Looks Like God”), says, “The most well-known Jewish value, the one that trumps any other, even Shabbat, is saving a life: Pikuach nefesh docheh Shabbat. That means, if you have to eat ham sandwiches on Yom Kippur to save a life, you do. And women’s lives depend on access to abortion in so many cases.”

Adelson, who is newly married to Lynn Harris, the writer and former vice president of public relations for the Boston chapter of NOW (and a longtime friend of mine), walks the walk in addition to talking the talk. The couple serves as hosts for the Haven Coalition, a New York grassroots group that provides emergency housing for women who travel to New York from outside the city for second-trimester abortions. Volunteers provide housing for women who can’t afford hotel rooms and don’t have access to abortion in their communities. Since, shockingly, 86% percent of all U.S. counties lack even a single abortion provider, and even more counties lack providers willing to perform second-trimester abortions, and since nearly one in four women must travel more than 50 miles to obtain an abortion, this service meets a major need. Women who are poor, abused, unaware that they are pregnant, or underage and living in states with untenable parental consent laws are especially trapped.

Ironically, despite the fact that women in their teens, 20s and 30s are the most likely to have abortions, the strongest supporters of abortion rights are actually women over 50. Perhaps that’s because they remember life before legal abortion and the pill. Lesley Frost, 61, of Morris Township, N.J., who’ll be attending the march with her 24-year-old son, Adam, says, “I dread to think of those days when women were literally driven to the back alleys. I think the saddest thing I’ve seen in the last 30 years is how many women now take their rights for granted.”

Reform Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, 42, of Burbank, Calif., agrees that there’s some complacency among progressives that Roe v. Wade can’t be overturned. She runs the Clergy for Choice Network, an association of 1,650 clergy of different faiths that’s part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an alliance of national organizations that includes the governing bodies of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Reform and Conservative Jewish movements. (She’s also the mother of a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old.) She says, “For many Jews, this isn’t a personal issue. We don’t have big problems with teen pregnancy or AIDS in our community.” But, she adds, “We need to remind ourselves that this is really a religious liberty issue. Whenever we can stand up for the First Amendment, we need to. That’s what made it possible for Jews to rise to the level we have and feel safe in this country. And in the last three years, personally, I have felt less safe.”

Barbara Kavadias of Morristown, N.J., 46, is the director of field services for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She will attend the march with her 14-year-old, Hannah. “A lot of times people of faith haven’t taken care to pass on our values to our kids,” she says. “But there are so many teachable moments! When, say, we’re discussing the Torah portion about the mishkan [tabernacle] in the desert, we talk about what was of value to God. God was saying we weren’t slaves anymore; our labor was voluntary. So how could God want procreation to be any less voluntary?” Secular culture also offers opportunity to talk about values. “Whenever news stories about Laci Peterson are on,” Kavadias says, “we talk about the tragedy, but also about the fact that what happened isn’t the same as killing two people, according to our tradition. And when we were watching PBS and saw the president signing the so-called Partial Birth Abortion bill, surrounded by all these white men, we talked about that at the dinner table.”

For Kavadias, pro-choice activism is tikkun olam, repairing the world. “We can’t repair the world if women are not free,” she says. “Especially so close to Passover we should realize that. We can’t have a healthy world on the backs of half its population. For everyone to be a full human being, participants in God’s creation, following the mitzvot, we need reproductive choice.”

Write to Marjorie at mamele@forward.com.






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