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Mifepristone ban reminds American Jews at Passover that the fight against tyranny never ends

Court decision attempting to ban medication abortion sows confusion and chaos, just like Pharaoh

As Jews around the world honor the dreams and hopes of freedom and justice this Passover, a federal judge in Texas issued an ideological ruling compromising access to mifepristone, one of two medications used in medication abortion. The story of the Exodus and the Jewish season of liberation provide a case study for how to use our values and our voices to resist this sort of ideologically motivated cruelty.

Regardless of the outcome of this case and the other case in Washington state, the anti-abortion opposition is sowing confusion by calling the drug into question at all.

As we write this, mifepristone is available and its access remains unchanged, but the confusion is part of the point. Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative over and over again says that he will let the Israelites go, but goes back on his word every time. In doing so, he succeeds in creating chaos and confusion — and we must wonder, are there those who were left behind in Egypt because of this uncertainty?

How many will be hurt by this ideologically sown uncertainty about mifepristone?

If Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk’s decision in Texas is allowed to stand, it will be the biggest blow to abortion access nationwide since the overturning of Roe v. Wade last June. Nearly simultaneously, a federal judge in Washington issued an opposing ruling to maintain FDA approval for the same medication. With these dueling decisions, plus the Department of Justice’s appeal of the Texas decision, we wait for the Supreme Court to take it up.

Celebrating the joy of an ancient redemption requires that we also feel the urgency to fight for contemporary liberation. We know from our yearly telling of the Passover story that every generation has a people that yearns for freedom, and that there is also a pharaoh trying to take those freedoms away. The Passover Haggadah reminds us that they’ll always rise up against us because our freedom threatens their power. The pharaoh limits rights, the pharaoh makes things harder and harder, the pharaoh creates confusion — all in an attempt to assert control.

Likewise, access to mifepristone — and abortion access writ large — is being stolen by a small group of people seeking control. The medication in question, mifepristone, is safe and has been approved by the FDA for over 20 years. Safer than Tylenol and penicillin, medication abortion is the most commonly used abortion care in this country, accounting for 53% of abortions. Medication abortion allows people to make their own private health care decisions and self-manage their abortions safely in the privacy of their own homes, free from harassment and stigma.

Since the Supreme Court reversed the federal right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization this past June, millions of Americans in far too many states across this country have lost abortion access. The ever-changing landscape has meant people have had to travel out of state for care or continue their pregnancies against their will, or suffer helplessly through life-threatening medical situations while doctors attempt to navigate the new legal landscape. Attempts to ban mifepristone further exacerbate the dire consequences of the Dobbs decision.

Mifepristone is also part of standard of care treatment for medication management of miscarriages — so the impact of attempting to ban mifepristone creates new obstacles for millions of people managing miscarriages, in an already confusing landscape.

It is the pharoahs of our own time who are working to ban mifepristone: politically motivated, religious extremists obsessed with banning abortion. This is ideological, judicial activism meant to deny us bodily autonomy and reproductive freedom. These same pharoahs have been coming for trans rights and gender-affirming care, for the books in our libraries and the curriculum in our schools — and they’re coming for birth control, IVF, same-sex marriage, and more.

This is yet another example of this ongoing Christian nationalist assault on our country. There are many possible religious (and areligious) understandings of abortion. Much has been written about how our Jewish tradition supports abortion access and how abortion bans are a threat to religious freedom. People of all religions and no religion have abortions.

Christian fundamentalism — in this case, driving one very specific set of ideas about when life begins — must not dictate health care access or any of the policies that govern our nation.

This is why we, a rabbi and a Jewish organizational leader, fight for abortion access. It is because of our Jewish religious beliefs, not despite them.

The political theorist Michael Walzer writes in his book Exodus and Revolution: “We still believe, or many of us do, what the exodus first taught … about the meaning and possibility of politics: first, that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.”

We will join together and march towards this promised land: a land where compassion and freedom thrive. Yes, we are in Egypt now, but we work toward a better future, where people can access the health care they need — any time, for any reason. This fight is relentless but we must fight for freedom from this pharaoh, in order that we can face the next one.

To contact the authors, email [email protected].

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