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Striking down Roe v. Wade will violate Jewish religious liberty

Orthodox Jewish organizations are running out of time to organize our political power and communal voice in defense of abortion laws that allow us to keep our faith.

A woman who had desperately wanted to get pregnant ended up having to have an abortion.

This woman, who I know well, told me her story through tears but without hyperbole or exaggeration. 

She and her husband had tried to conceive for three years before she finally became pregnant. Everything was going smoothly until 18 weeks into the pregnancy, when the woman’s water broke and contractions started, stopping the development of the baby’s lungs in the absence of amniotic fluid. 

An ultrasound additionally showed that the woman’s uterus had become infected, and that she could die if the nonviable fetus was not removed. Thankfully, once they did so, the infection cleared and this woman was able to have a son a few years later.

The woman told me this story the morning after a draft ruling was leaked from the Supreme Court. If adopted as law, it would have sentenced this woman and countless others to death.

When this woman’s fetus was removed to save her life, the fetus still had a heartbeat. Such an abortion would become illegal in several states if Roe is overturned.

Abortions happen regularly in Jewish communities, even Orthodox ones, but often go undiscussed. Jewish law allows for abortion in many cases, and requires it if the mother’s life is in danger.

This ruling is the culmination of a decadeslong political organizing campaign by Christian conservatives, many of whom believe that abortion is murder, even if the procedure is done to save the life of the mother or in the very early stages of pregnancy. 

Republican politicians since 1973 have used the promise of banning abortion to get Christian voters out to the polls, and this has been key to many of the GOP’s electoral successes. A 2015 poll found that 23% of anti-abortion voters would only vote for a candidate that was also anti-abortion, and Donald Trump’s 2016 victory can be largely attributed to his promises that he would only appoint Supreme Court nominees who would overturn Roe v. Wade. 

The fundamentalist Christian position is the exact opposite of the halachic approach to abortions. The success of this Republican-Christian strategy should strike terror in the hearts of frum communities across America. It should also motivate us to action.

The Orthodox Vote

The Orthodox Jewish community, in recent years, has become overwhelmingly aligned with conservative politics and politicians. Large communal organizations make efforts to remain officially nonpartisan, but it is plainly clear where the political sentiments of the majority of community members rest.

For some, U.S. policy on Israel is the deciding factor above and beyond all others, and increasingly, that has meant that Republican politicians win Orthodox communities in a landslide.

While some Orthodox views of the world are conservative ones, a stance that is against abortion in all cases would prevent many women from fulfilling Jewish law

Jews who live in Florida, Ohio, Texas, Georgia and other states with Republican controlled governments will soon lose access to legal abortion, even when their rabbi has told them that Jewish law requires them to receive one, thus violating their religious liberty.

Worse, Georgia and other states have already attempted to pass laws that would criminalize traveling to another state for the abortion, and even criminalize helping a woman travel to another state for one.

The law in Texas, which bans all abortions after about 4 weeks, explicitly says that religious leaders can be prosecuted for supporting and helping a woman get an abortion. 

There has been no significant national outcry from Orthodox Jewish communal organizations. We are running out of time to organize our political power and communal voice in defense of abortion laws that allow us to keep our faith. 

New York and several states have recently passed laws protecting safe and legal abortions no matter what the federal law is, but the looming threat is significant. 

Are we prepared to see parents from Brooklyn arrested by Florida State Police because they helped their daughter in Miami get the abortion her rabbi and doctor agreed she needed? Are we prepared to see rabbis arrested for making halachic rulings? Are we prepared to see Jewish doctors convicted of crimes for performing abortions?

When a woman is told the crushing news by her infertility doctor that one of her twin fetuses is thriving but one is not, and neither fetus will be born alive if the second fetus is not aborted, do we want a politician telling her rabbi and medical team that they must not intervene to save her viable fetus?

We cannot accept any of that. The time to organize and prevent this disaster was a decade ago, but the next best time to organize is now. 

When laws are proposed that could hinder circumcision, or Shabbat observance, or even public menorah lightings, every Orthodox communal organization has lobbied with passion and fire. Are the literal lives of women less important to protect?

The story I related at the beginning is a straightforward one, as far as Jewish law is concerned. The woman had a significant chance of dying if her fetus was not removed, and the fetus had zero chance of survival: abortion was the only ethical option, and also the only halachically acceptable one. 

But soon in many states, this woman’s medical team would have had to wait and let the infection worsen. Their choice would have been between risking the woman’s life or facing jail time.

That is not a world American Jews should tolerate.

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