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The Illusion of Choice in Israel

A banner of the Israeli pro-life group Efrat in 2012. The text reads: “Eventually, birth will determine our existence as a Jewish state.” / Wikimedia Commons

The United States seems to be in a constant battle over reproductive health rights — take this week’s Hobby Lobby ruling — particularly in regards to abortion. Both federal and state courts are wrapped up in cases challenging everything from personhood amendments, to waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, bufferzone laws and more. With more restrictions, the closing of clinics around the country and increased difficulty in obtaining easily accessible, affordable, safe abortions, it can feel as if the U.S. is moving backwards in terms of reproductive rights. So it’s no wonder that looking out to Israel, there’s a tendency to exalt their more liberal policies.

In Israel, when it comes to abortion, here is no limit on the age of gestation, no parental consent policy for minors, and abortion services are now mostly covered for all women up to the age of 33. These policies far exceed what the U.S. has to offer. Yet there is one hurdle that pregnant Israelis have to face, that the US has not — yet — implemented: a termination committee.

While the policies are incredibly liberal, being able to access them is not up to the person seeking the abortion. They have to answer questions about their circumstances before being approved. The committee is also responsible for deciding the method used. Is this illusion of choice worth it? Is it still easier than obtaining an abortion in the states?

Yes, says Samantha, a 30-something-woman who made aliyah to Israel a few years ago. (I have given her a pseudonym to protect her privacy.) But it’s not the liberal dream it’s been made out as, either. Samantha’s situation was not an uncommon one for somebody seeking an abortion. The mother of two children, she was going through an ugly separation. With a toddler and a new baby, Samantha was living in a new country, and struggling to find a way to leave an unhappy home and marriage. And then, she found herself pregnant.

“I didn’t speak Hebrew at the time,” Samantha tells me. “So I called a friend of mine for advice. She told me to google clinics in Tel Aviv — apparently, it’s easier to get an abortion there than in the Holy City of Jerusalem. I’m not sure if that is really the case, but I found a doctor within a few minutes of searching online in English.”

She was given an appointment the next day. I asked Samantha to walk me through the committee process — how many medical experts were involved and how long did it take. In her particular case, the “committee” ended up being a two-minute consultation with a nurse. Yet, despite the casual nature of this formality, Samantha still felt she couldn’t be completely truthful, for fear that she wouldn’t be approved.

“I had been coached beforehand to tell them unequivocally that the baby was NOT my husband’s. Apparently, married women over and under a certain age are given a harder time when they want to end a pregnancy unless they can show clear indication that having a baby will be detrimental to their physical and mental health.”

Even with the committee, there are a few factors in place that almost ensure your request for an abortion will be accepted: If you’re under the age of marriage —18 — or older than 40, not married, the pregnancy is determined to be physically or mentally dangerous, or occurred because of illegal situations (rape, incest, etc…), or the fetus has some sort birth defect. Yet, if you come in as a married woman in your 30s, the odds that you’ll be approved go down. In talking with Samantha, she notes that many other women have had to play the system in a similar way, for fear of being denied an abortion by the committee.

And so, Samantha lied. She told them the baby was not her husband’s and she was approved for an abortion. Her approval forms were already filled out and signed. All that was left was for the nurse to stamp them with the seal of approval before bringing Samantha into an exam room. A doctor verified her pregnancy, and because she wasn’t very far along, she was eligible for RU-486, a series of two pills that ends a pregnancy. And that was it.

For Samantha, who calls the situation “sad, but necessary,” she’s appreciative of how easy the process was, especially in comparison to an abortion she had years earlier, as a college student in the U.S. Because of regulations in the state where she lived, instead of the relatively uncomplicated, quickly obtained abortion she experienced in Israel, her U.S. one was long, drawn out, and much more intense and emotional.

“While there was no committee, the process was much more rigorous. One doctor appointment to verify the pregnancy and then a second appointment for the ‘procedure.’”

Despite its seemingly liberal policies, abortion in Israel is still a complicated matter. In a small country desperate for a growing Jewish population, abortion can seem like an actual death sentence for some. And yet it’s a necessary reality for many. How can a country purport to have some of the most liberal abortion policies, and yet still subject people to a committee — whether it be three medical experts (with a minimum of one being a woman) or simply one nurse — that makes it more difficult for married women to obtain one? However, there is currently a push to do away with the committee aspect of abortion access in Israel. If this takes place, the illusion will be gone, paving the way for actual choice, and allowing those, like Samantha, an honest ownership of their reproductive decisions.

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