I want Jews to pray for reproductive justice, and I want rabbis to lead them.
On March 2, the eight-person Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, the most significant abortion case in a decade. At issue in the case is whether Texas’s absurd and completely medically unjustified restrictions on abortion clinics — which would reduce the state’s clinics from 42 to 10 — are constitutional.
The larger question, though, is whether Roe v. Wade, while remaining on the books, can be chipped away into irrelevance.
Before any case like this, Christian conservatives gather at prayer vigils all around the country. This year, however, they won’t have their usual monopoly on God. That’s because the Religious Institute, an interfaith progressive organization, is organizing a National Weekend of Prayer for Reproductive Justice February 26-28. They are joined by the National Council of Jewish Women, among other groups.
Unlike many conservatives, most progressives don’t believe that prayer can sway the outcome of court cases. Amicus briefs, maybe — which is why the Religious Institute got 1,300 faith leaders, myself included, to sign one it filed with the Supreme Court. But prayer? Not so much.
Yet prayer does work — not to convince God, but to convince people. If the struggle for reproductive justice is between religion on the one hand and secular rights on the other, the rights side is going to lose — as indeed it has been losing for 20 years. In a country that is still mostly religious, allowing one side to monopolize the spiritual conversation is a recipe for disaster.
Does this sound familiar? It should. In the 1990s and 2000s, the LGBT movement pursued a secular rights strategy (remember “gay rights”?). It lost terribly. In the later 2000s and into this decade, it changed its tune. The movement recognized that LGBT issues, especially same-sex marriage, are profoundly religious ones for a majority of Americans, and they had to be addressed as such. I’m proud to have played a minuscule part in that effort with my 2011 book, “God vs. Gay? The Religious Case for Equality,” which argued that most of our religious values support LGBT equality, dignity and humanity.
This conversation worked — particularly inside the Jewish community, where more than 85% of American Jews now support marriage equality.
But we are not there yet, as a Jewish community, on reproductive justice. Many Jews still believe that the government should tell women what to do with their bodies and when a fetus counts as a person. Yet this is a moral as well as political issue, and it’s time rabbis preached about it.
Notice that, like LGBT equality, this is a different question from whether an individual believes abortion to be moral or immoral. Just as one might believe homosexuality to be against religious principles but still support civil LGBT equality, so one might believe abortion to be against religious or moral principles but still support reproductive justice — that is, the rights of women to choose and access their own reproductive healthcare.
The moral question we face is not about abortion. The necessary moral and religious conversation is about whether women are full human beings, and whether in a civil society, someone else’s — or even society’s — religious or moral views should take precedence over women’s.
These are indeed moral questions, and rabbis should not hesitate to weigh in on them this month. Here’s why.
First, almost nowhere in American life is public morality placed above individual freedom. Of course, when an act impacts someone else (murder, air pollution, speeding, insider trading) the law properly steps in. But only very rarely does the law regulate what a person does with his or her own body. Drug laws, the most prominent example of such regulation, are usually justified on the basis of public safety. As Jews blessed to live in a country that guarantees our freedom, we should fight to keep such examples rare.
Yes, abortion is a complex case, because many people believe that another person is impacted by it. But that’s why abortion may be rendered illegal after fetal viability. Before that time, whether another “person” exists is, itself, the moral decision of the woman.
Second, is it not suspicious that the greatest exception to the principle of “live and let live” would affect only women? Does it not seem likely that, after 2000-plus years of men controlling women’s bodies, this is an extension of that odious practice and a devaluing of women’s moral agency? And does that not seem like a failure to pursue justice, fairness and compassion for all?
Our male-written Jewish heritage may be ambiguous when it comes to feminism, but it at least regards women (most of the time) as fully human, moral agents. Surely the vast majority of American Jews must stand up, on Jewish principles, for women’s basic humanity.
Third, even if pre-viability abortion restrictions impacted everyone, they would still be based on a frankly religious, sectarian view of when human life begins. Do we want our government to enforce religious laws? Is the apparatus of the state — crime and punishment, prisons and guns — to be used to enforce a point of Christian religious dogma?
Whatever our personal views on abortion, surely as Jews we must fight for the neutrality of the state, and combat any effort to use the justice system (which is, at heart, law backed up by violence) to impose one religion’s view literally on the bodies of American citizens. Once again, it is suspicious, to say the least, that American Jews have so strongly defended the separation of church and state in so many cases, but seem more reticent when it comes to church-state issues that affect women.
True, an entire political party is currently campaigning to take away women’s rights in order to protect a religiously defined category of “unborn children” — and indeed, these politicians are flouting their oaths of office to do so. But this should not be a partisan issue. This is a moral issue, and I urge rabbis not to be silent about it.
Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor to the Forward.