Medical Examiner

The Religious Case for Abortion Rights

Getting an abortion in Israel made me realize what Americans are getting wrong.

The outline of a woman's hips with a cross in the center of her pelvis.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

My first pregnancy was a dream. I couldn’t wait to meet the baby girl growing inside of me. I fantasized each day about holding her in my arms for the first time. The delivery, though, was traumatic. She had to be suctioned out of me to save her life. I wasn’t able to hold her until five hours after she was born.

Then, last November, when she was 6 months old, I got pregnant again. I was 34, happily married—and adjusting to life as a mother. I was still healing from giving birth.

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The more I contemplated having this surprise baby, the more I feared it. I wasn’t ready to share my love with another child. The long wait to hug my daughter to my skin made me want to pour every ounce of love I had in me onto her alone. I wanted another child eventually, but this was not how I wanted them to enter into this world. My husband and I considered our options. We saw a psychologist to help us cope with the guilt and sadness we felt over considering not having this child. We both wanted to devote our full attention to our newborn daughter, and to bring her a brother or sister when the time was right for our family.

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When we decided to end the pregnancy, I told only my mother and a few of my closest friends. I still feel a lump in my throat when I think about it, and as I write this piece.

I was pro-choice long before I ever needed to make that choice myself. I attended my first abortion rights march in Washington with my mother when I was 13, holding my NOW poster high and proud. I never imagined then that one day I would be seriously considering the possibility of abortion becoming illegal in America, or that I would need one myself.

I was living in Israel when I chose to end my pregnancy. This might sound shocking, but in Israel, abortion is a nonissue. It has been legal since 1977. The subject does not figure in election campaigns or in political ads. Striking down the legality or government funding of abortions is not a cause of any political party, not even the most right wing. Why? Because life and the protection of it are sacred in Judaism, and when the physical or mental health of a woman is threatened by an unwanted pregnancy, it is the right thing to do to allow her to end that pregnancy. For all its flaws, Israel—a nation literally founded by the Bible—at least recognizes the need to protect this right. Not despite but because it is a nation guided by religion, Israel has a far more humane abortion policy than the United States, even now, with Roe v. Wade still intact. Anti-choice Americans often hold religion as their guide in opposing a woman’s right to choose. Yet if they have any model in their pursuit of a legal code that is dictated by religion, they should look no further than Israel, where there is no separation of church and state—or synagogue and state.

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Not only was my abortion permitted, at seven weeks, but it was paid for by the government—in other words, by Israeli taxpayers, the majority of whom are traditional and right wing.

Still, there are barriers. In order to receive an abortion from Israel’s public health system, a woman must go before a committee, composed of a social worker and two doctors, to request permission and must explain why she wants to end her pregnancy. (There is a separate committee that handles cases over 24 weeks, though I know women in Israel who have received a government-funded abortion during their second trimester because their unborn baby was diagnosed with a severe mental or physical ailment.)

Though 98 percent of people who seek abortions in the first trimester are granted an abortion by these committees, it is telling that half the abortions in Israel are performed in private clinics. The social stigma around ending a pregnancy is powerful; women want to avoid the added trauma that can come with having to explain to a group of strangers why you are making the most difficult decision of your life, and to avoid the rare case that her request will not be granted.

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Going before a committee brings up the possibility of judgment and rejection. Israel’s abortion law stipulates four criteria by which an abortion is guaranteed to be approved: if the pregnancy occurs out of wedlock or is the result of rape or incest; if the woman is under 18 or over 40; if the fetus is in danger; and if the mother’s mental or physical health is at risk.

I went to my gynecologist to receive the ultrasound I needed to present to the committee, telling him my plan. “Your fetus is healthy, you are healthy, and you are married,” he replied “No committee will approve your abortion.” I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. His hand was on my lubricated belly, the monitor displaying the fetus and its heartbeat in front of us. He told me he could write a note to the committee saying that my husband is not the father of this baby and that is why I need to end the pregnancy. I left his office in tears.

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My family doctor, who has a friend on one of the committees in Tel Aviv, told me that my gynecologist was wrong. She offered to write a letter to the committee describing my fragile mental health as a new mother and suggested that I get a letter from a psychologist as well. I also showed the committee that I take anti-anxiety medicine.

In the end, my request was granted and paid for. I received a medical abortion with a series of pills that caused heavy bleeding. The abortion itself proved to be the easiest part of my experience. I suffered more from the guilt than anything else.

Women in America are made to feel incredibly guilty over abortion, where it’s treated as an issue of morality. When opponents of abortion invoke Jesus or the Bible, I can’t help but wonder what Jesus—who was a Jew living in the Land of Israel—would say. According to Jewish law, which is derived from the Old Testament, a fetus is considered part of its mother until birth. Existing life takes precedence over potential life (hear that, gun-toting “pro-lifers”?). Therefore, abortion is not only condoned by Jewish law but even encouraged in cases where the mother’s life is endangered.

Opponents of a woman’s right to choose often paint abortion as a weapon wielded by irresponsible women, who use abortion as an afterthought to their carelessness. I know they are wrong. And yet, I had internalized their beliefs. Making it harder for women to get abortions in America isn’t just a matter of medical practicality. It seeps into how we measure our own worth, how we see ourselves. We should not need to feel ashamed.

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