Sisterhood Blog

A Jewish Way to Process Abortion

By Elissa Strauss

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Kurt Hoffman

Over at Tablet, Josie Glausiusz has a reported piece on new Jewish mikveh ceremonies and rituals for women who have had an abortion. Like everywhere else, abortion is a complicated issue in the Jewish community, from the “feminists [who] don’t necessarily want to acknowledge the notion that abortion may be associated with feelings of grief, loss, or regret” to Orthodox Jews who generally believe abortion is only okay if the mother’s life is at risk or the baby has severe genetic disorders. Still, the fact is that women, from Orthodox to unaffiliated, get abortions, and many of them long for a Jewish way to process it.

Glausisuz writes:

Yet some women who have chosen abortion, even if they are sure that it is the right choice at the time, find themselves dwelling upon the decision, even years after the procedure, and often on its anniversary or in the weeks leading up to it. Immersing in the mikveh, said Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director Carrie Bornstein, can offer the woman an opportunity for separation and transition: “Oftentimes it’s helpful for people to say, ‘I’m going to move to the next stage of my life, whatever that might bring, and I’m not going to let that experience define me or take me over.’ ”

Halachically, a woman is required to go to a mikveh after an abortion as a way to purify herself from the bleeding. However, most women who do go for this purpose don’t feel comfortable talking about what brought them there.

“Having to go and be dishonest as to why you are going seems to me completely counterintuitive to the whole notion of mikveh, during which you are naked, vulnerable, and exposed,” Aliza Kline, founding director of Mayyim Hayyim, a mikveh that offers a post-abortion ritual, told Glausisuz. “The notion that the community is closing their eyes and plugging their ears and saying ‘la la la, this isn’t happening,’ is really not helpful.”

The idea that abortion is always traumatic is a problematic one, as is the notion that it is no big deal. While I can’t speak from personal experience, I imagine that, for most women, their feelings about terminating a pregnancy falls somewhere in between.

The beauty of these new abortion rituals is they give women a nuanced, more contemplative narrative on how to think about their abortions — one that is lacking in secular culture. These rituals aren’t about politics, or even morality, nor are there simple notions of innocence or guilt, right or wrong. (In general, Jewish tradition doesn’t trade in such binaries.) Instead, these seem to be about helping women, one by one, move through a likely emotional time.

Elissa Strauss, a lead blogger for the Sisterhood, also writes about gender and culture for places like the New York Times, Jezebel and Salon. Follow her on Twitter @elissaavery.


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