Jewish women are leaders on abortion rights. But they need your help. -J.
In 1966, I was a student at the Boston University School of Social Work when I received a phone call from a college friend. She explained to me in a low voice that she needed an abortion and thought I could help her.
At that time, I didn’t know anyone who had terminated a pregnancy; all I knew was that abortion was illegal. I quietly asked classmates if they knew how to terminate a pregnancy safely. One of them had an answer.
It wasn’t long before I got the phone number of a doctor who performed abortions in a kitchen that functioned as an underground clinic. “He won’t call you back unless you say the right word,” my classmate told me. I nervously left the doctor a message with the code word, knowing my friend’s fate was at stake. When the doctor called me back, I made an appointment with my friend. For $500, she terminated her pregnancy, regained her independence, and moved on with her life. We never spoke of her abortion again.
My friend was lucky to have had a small community of resourceful people at a time when access to abortion was illegal and surrounded by fear, intimidation and shame. She was also lucky enough to be able to pay $500 – about $4,300 in today’s dollars – for a risky procedure and not suffer any health complications.
I fear that we are approaching a time when clandestine abortions in makeshift clinical kitchens will once again become commonplace in the United States. According to a report published by the Guttmacher Institute in 2018, more than 22,000 women and girls worldwide die every year after having an unsafe abortion. Now, all signs suggest the United States Supreme Court is set to overturn or significantly erode Roe v. Wade, his landmark decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
If so, at least 24 US states would consider it illegal to receive or perform abortions. Consider how many people will die or suffer long-term health problems from unsafe abortions if we revert to a pre-Roe world.
I am a Jewish philanthropist who has supported many women’s dignity initiatives in American Jewry, Israel, and around the world. I never thought I would live long enough to see the day when abortion would become illegal again. But here we are. I look around me and ask myself: why so few Jewish leaders speak out?
Most Jews — 83% according to the Pew Research Center – promote abortion rights, making the Jewish community one of the most progressive religious groups in the country that support reproductive justice. Given this percentage, I would expect Jewish groups to use their influence to protect abortion access at this urgent time in our history. And yet, the vast majority of American Jewish organizations have been chillingly silent.
For years, I have pushed for issues affecting women and LGBTQ+ people to become a central part of the Jewish community agenda. But time and time again, I’ve been disappointed when Jewish institutions that don’t explicitly serve women or LGBTQ+ people don’t prioritize — or ignore entirely — the needs, struggles, and life experiences of more than half of them. of the Jewish population. It is time for that to change.
The burden of mobilizing Jews around abortion access shouldn’t just fall on women and LGBTQ+ people
Jewish women have a lasting legacy in promoting reproductive justice. The Jewish Women’s Archives documents this story in their digital collection. “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution” as well as in a recent podcast episode on The Jane Collective – an underground abortion counseling service in Chicago founded by Jewish activist Heather Booth that operated from 1969 to 1973, when abortion was illegal.
Similarly, Lilith Magazine has dedicated several of its pages and blog posts to abortion access, spanning several decades. The 1981 issue of Lilith featured a cover story titled “The Jewish Stake in Abortion Rights” with an image of two bent coat hangers that formed the shape of a Star of David. Hangers were frequently used to terminate pregnancies before Roe, and they remain dangerous (though accessible) tools even today.
Since its founding in 1893, the National Council of Jewish Women has been a leader in the movement for reproductive health and rights. Recently, she launched the “Rabbis for Breeding» campaign and convened a Jewish Abortion Access Coalition with partners inside and outside the Jewish community. This week, NCJW is hosting Repro Shabbat, an opportunity for congregations, organizations, and communities to celebrate the critical importance of reproductive health and justice, and to learn more about Judaism’s approach to these issues.
I am grateful for all these efforts. But the burden of mobilizing Jews around abortion access shouldn’t just fall on women and LGBTQ+ people. Leaders of organized Jewry – dominated by men – have never shied away from expressing their outrage at crises that undermine our basic humanity, such as anti-Semitism and violence in Israel. Nor were they shy about expressing concern about assimilation, intermarriage, infertility, and Jewish continuity. But what about the crisis of losing the right to make decisions about our own bodies? Where is the community outcry over this?
To be clear, I admire the brave Jewish leaders who shared their abortion stories publicly in recent years. There are, no doubt, thousands of people in the Jewish community – rabbis and educators; donors and devotees; friends and neighbors – who have had abortions or who will need them in the future. Their reasons may vary, but one thing remains true: keeping abortion safe and legal reflects our most cherished Jewish values: pikuach nefesh (saving a life), briyut (health and safety), kavod (human dignity) and tzedek (justice). ).
I therefore call on all Jewish leaders and institutions – not just those run by and for women – to speak out boldly in defense of abortion access and safety. Our lives, our families and our future depend on it.
When my friend who needed an abortion called me for help almost 50 years ago, I know she was deeply afraid of what her future would be like if she were forced to become a mother before she died. ‘be ready. I never want another friend of mine – or anyone else – to experience the same fear, or face an even more disastrous outcome, or suffer the effects of an abortion done negligently or without proper medical care.
The Jewish community knows how to defend the dignity, justice and health of those we love, including those who are strangers to us. We have done it before and we must do it again. It is now.