Jewish groups are signing letters, dispatching lobbyists and mobilizing grass roots efforts in opposition to a wave of proposals being pushed by the newly installed Republican majority in the House of Representatives, to restrict abortion and family-planning funding.
The Jewish groups are alarmed about proposals that would bar government funding of abortions for low-income women, effectively ban abortion coverage in upcoming health-insurance exchanges, and penalize subscribers to private insurance plans that cover abortion. Another proposal would prevent health care organizations such as Planned Parenthood that perform abortions with private funds from receiving any public dollars through the national-family planning program.
“These bills are probably the greatest threat to women’s rights that we’ve seen since pre-Roe,” said Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, referring to the landmark Supreme Court case Roe v. Wade, which first legalized abortion nationally in 1973. “This is a huge moment, and we’re using every resource we’ve got.”
It is a mobilization with ample precedent in Jewish political life. A diverse range of Jewish groups, with the notable exception of Orthodox organizations, has a long history of activism on behalf of reproductive rights, including abortion. The activists involved invoke a variety of rationales when asked why this is a Jewish issue, from religious freedom to traditional Jewish concern for social justice.
NCJW has been among the most active in mobilizing opposition to the wave of legislative proposals. In addition to submitting written testimony to the House of Representatives against the bills, NCJW is conducting advocacy work online, has representatives in meetings with elected officials and plans to highlight reproductive rights at its national convention in Dallas in March.
“It’s a Jewish issue because of the religious freedom impact of imposing one religious view about abortion rights on everybody,” Ratzan told the Forward, adding that NCJW, founded in 1893, began working on abortion rights in the 1920s with Margaret Sanger, founder of the American Birth Control League.
Reform Judaism has played a role in the issue since Roe v. Wade, according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “It’s a Jewish issue because the opponents to a woman’s right to choose have in large measure come from the religious community, so we have felt that it’s the obligation of people with a liberal religious perspective to make it clear to all Americans that there is a religious voice that affirms a woman’s right to choose.”
A group of Reform rabbis led by Yoffie signed a letter opposing legislation seeking to defund Title X, which largely supports Planned Parenthood, a federation consisting of health care clinics that provide reproductive services to women, from Pap smears to abortions. None of the federal funding Planned Parenthood receives goes toward abortion, so the legislation, if it became law, would hit the organization’s ability to deliver other family planning services. But the group’s opponents’ view is that the federal funds are fungible and therefore inevitably, if indirectly, support Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, as well.
Legislation to cut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood touches on a key Jewish tenet of social justice, Yoffie said. “Poor women often can’t secure abortions,” he told the Forward. That said, Reform Judaism views abortion as a “serious matter” with religious considerations, but holds that “it’s a decision for women to make.”
The Reform movement’s advocacy arm, the Religious Action Center, also has action alerts on its website and is lobbying Congress members. “We’re educating them that the work funded by Title X isn’t fully about abortion — it’s about reproductive health,” said the RAC’s legislative director, Barbara Weinstein. “It reflects the common Jewish understanding that we are commanded to care for the health and well-being of our bodies. It’s not a Reform value; it’s a Jewish value.”
Groups affiliated with the Conservative movement have not taken an official stance on this legislation, but are participating through involvement in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice because “they’re much better at this,” said Rabbi Jack Moline, director of public policy for the movement’s Rabbinic Assembly. The coalition has action alerts on its website that urge members to oppose the recent legislation. “Abortion, while rarely desirable, is sometimes necessary,” Moline said. “Jewish tradition believes that proper medical care is an essential aspect of human society, and that it should not be limited to people with exceptional resources.”
Underlying Jewish activism on this issue is the reality that Judaism, in contrast to Catholicism and conservative Protestantism, does not regard human fetuses as having equal legal or moral standing with human beings after they are born. While the exact status the fetus does have varies among the Jewish movements, even the Orthodox part ways with conservative Christians on this point.
“In terms of American politics, I think that a blanket prohibition against all abortions would certainly be against the Orthodox view,” said Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. “The best thing we can do as Jews in the United States is to work for a system whereby abortion is left to be determined by the mother.”
But when two Orthodox Union spokesmen were asked for the group’s official view, they declined to comment.
“What the government funds and doesn’t fund is not a Jewish issue,” explained Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Orthodox law professor at Emory University School of Law. “To speak in a vested way about the Jewish tradition is uncalled for, because there are complex nuances of Jewish policy.”
Likewise, Marvin Schick, president of the Orthodox yeshiva Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, believes that the liberal factions of Judaism have coopted the religion’s name with progressive causes. “It’s all part of a larger process in which American Jewry has become secularized,” he said.
According to a 2009 report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Jews lead all religious groups in the belief that abortion should be legal either in all cases or in most: 40% and 44%, respectively, as opposed to 18% and 35% for America’s total population, 13% and 35% for Muslims, and 16% and 32% for Catholics.
Even among Jews on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, the question of abortion boils down to religious freedom. Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the ultra-Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his group believes Roe v. Wade should be reversed — but the group splits with pro-life organizations because “there must be an allowance in certain cases… . We’re fiercely pro-religious freedom but against abortion in principle, and the two can come against one another.”
If any of the bills being considered in the Republican-controlled House pass, they will almost certainly die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where they would need 60 votes. But opponents say they aren’t taking any chances. “I don’t think we can assume it’s moot,” said Adam Sonfield, senior public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a not-for-profit that works on sexual and reproductive health.
And Jewish supporters of abortion rights see the legislation as part of a larger, nationwide movement to erode women’s reproductive rights. Speaker of the House John Boehner has professed his desire to be “the most pro-life” Speaker ever. “It’s part of a big movement on the extreme conservative side and needs to be addressed with a lot of strength,” Ratzan said.
The abortion debate post Roe v. Wade is being fought out on the state level, as well. Five states — Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee — have banned state-based health insurance exchanges from administering abortion-inclusive coverage. Several others, including Arkansas, Ohio and Oklahoma, are seeking to do the same.
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