The news from Israel that Ethiopian Jewish women were given birth control shots without their consent has attracted quite a storm of argument, disillusionment and shock — as has the news of the huge number of extra-legal “black market” abortions, both addressed recently at the Sisterhood.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the fine points of Israeli public health policy; I only read what crosses my path stateside. But I do think a lot — maybe too much — about notions of reproductive choice, freedom and justice. And I see evidence that not all women who want terminations in Israel are getting them legally. Meanwhile, the state’s restrictions on the procedure are putting them in danger. At the same time, women of color in Israel have been coerced or misled into taking birth control shots. To me, these stories together exemplify how arguments over reproductive issues are oversimplified by our pro-choice/pro-life political tug of war here in the United States.
The fact is, the womb, the place from which life emerges, is a source of power. It will always tempt those who want power, and governments have and will frequently attempt to control women’s bodies and fertility — to take charge of ”the means of reproduction,” to use a spin on a Marxist phrase and the title of an excellent book on the subject.
Several years ago I saw the documentary film “The Last Abortion Clinic,” about the Jackson Women’s Health Organization (JWHO) in Jackson, Mississippi. As the title indicates, JWHO is the last clinic in the state that provides abortions; it serves women from all over Mississippi, many of whom are low-income and have trouble paying for their medical care, to say nothing of arranging the transportation to make long journeys to the clinic. For someone like me, who grew up in a Midwest college town and had lived in Boston and New York, it was like watching a film set in a foreign land.
Still, the landscape depicted in the film was achingly familiar. My mother’s family has lived in Alabama since the 1860s and she grew up in a tight-knit Jewish community in Birmingham. My parents were married in Birmingham and my sister and I were born there; even though we moved north when I was very young, our deep roots and frequent visits combined to make me feel more comfortable in the South than anywhere else.
As JWHO fights to stay open, I’ve thought about “The Last Abortion Clinic” frequently over the past year. Governor Phil Bryant has made no secret of his desire to close the clinic, and thanks to a new law requiring the clinic’s physicians to have admitting privileges at local hospitals, he may get his way. The physicians, all of whom are licensed, have applied for privileges at seven local hospitals but have been turned down by all of them. The reason? It seems that the hospitals feel that granting them admitting privileges would be disruptive to its “function and business” in the community.
Abortion has been legal in Israel since 1977. However, that does not mean that all abortions there are done according to the law.
An article published last year, co-authored by Sisterhood contributor and new JOFA executive director Elana Maryles Sztokman, states that no one knows exactly how many illegal abortions take place in Israel. However, according to a new investigation by Shosh Mula in Israel’s Yediot Ahronoth newspaper (published in the paper’s “7 Yamim” (7 Days) weekend supplement, which is not yet available online), it is possible to determine how many there are — and it is hard not to be shocked by the number.
According to Mula’s article, there are approximately 19,000 illegal abortions (of various kinds and in various settings) per year performed in Israel — the same number as legal abortions. The statistics were taken from a recent survey commissioned by New Family, the leading family rights organization in Israel that focuses on everything from gay rights and surrogacy law to fertility law and civil marriage.
With half of all abortions taking place below Israel’s official radar, a huge black market has developed. “A thousand shekels in [West Bank Palestinian town] Qalqilya, 5,000 shekels in a fancy clinic in Tel Aviv, or 500 shekels with a knitting needle in Jaffa: Welcome to Israel’s wild and reckless abortion black market,” the article begins. We’re talking about an underground economy of NIS 80 million ($22 million) per year.
Richard Marker is an advisor to philanthropists, founder of New York University’s Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, and co-principal of the firm Wise Philanthropy. He is also an ordained rabbi. In 1968 and 1969, when Marker was in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he worked part-time as a chaplain at Rutgers University, and then at Hofstra University.
One day he counseled three Rutgers students who were distraught because their friend had died after having a back alley abortion. At a time when abortion was illegal in America, it led him to become a member of the Clergy Consultation Service, whose members referred young women in search of abortions to places where they could have the procedure done safely. Part of the idea behind the Clergy Consultation Service was that clergy were less likely than others to be prosecuted for providing abortion referrals, since they were believed to have legal protection of privileged conversation similar to that afforded lawyers.
As we mark the 40th anniversary of the landmark 1973 United States Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal, The Sisterhood spoke with Marker about what was life was like at that time for young women facing unintended pregnancy, and about his experience as an activist trying to help them. When he began, he was 23 years old. (It is worth noting, as Linda Greenhouse has in a New York Times blog, that last year alone 19 state legislatures enacted a total of 43 new restrictions on access to abortion. Six states accounted for more than half the new restrictions, with the ever-reliable Arizona leading the pack with seven.) This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
I am not particularly good at letting things go, especially in situations where I know I could have done better. Remember when you asked me in an IM conversation if I thought a woman should be able to have an abortion when she is 38 weeks pregnant? I’ve been thinking about what I could — and should — have said in response for a while now, because what I did say didn’t even come close to expressing what I really feel.
I knew that you wanted me to say no, that under no circumstance should a woman in her third trimester be able to have an abortion — that anyone who thought such a thing is unredeemably evil. And my instinct was to say no, because I felt unprepared to deal with the consequences of telling the truth. I managed to say that I think a decision like that should be between a woman and her doctor. But that was not the answer you wanted.
What I would have said is that a woman should be trusted with all decisions related to her body, and so yes, an abortion needs to be an option at every point of pregnancy. Either you trust women or you don’t. It’s that simple.
Are pregnant women people? Not if those who believe in the concept of legal fetal “personhood” have their way. Forty years since Roe v. Wade, the steady rollback of reproductive rights that has taken place in Statehouses across America doesn’t merely affect women who want to prevent or end pregnancies. It creates an alarming legal standard that hurts pregnant women carrying to term, too.
National Advocates for Pregnant Women conducted a comprehensive — and alarming — study in which they investigated the incarceration, detention and forced medical intervention of hundreds of pregnant women based on a wide-range of cases since Roe was enacted.
Their report contains tough-to-read stories, including an instance where a woman was forced to have a C-section against her will (she later died), another case where a woman was kept in jail to deny her an abortion, and a case where a woman who refused prenatal testing was locked in a hospital to force it on her — and the testing was never done. Reproductive justice advocates have long warned that proposed “fetal personhood measures” meant miscarriages could be investigated as crimes, and indeed in some cases, they already have been.
“Carole, do you know what a lamed vovnik is?” a Philadelphia obstetrician/gynecologist suddenly asked me during an interview I was conducting with him in the late 1980s. It certainly wasn’t a typical question a sociologist gets when interviewing a doctor about his medical practice. But Dr. Morris Fischer (a pseudonym) seemed both surprised and pleased that I actually did know to what he was referring.
According to Jewish legend, the lamed vovniks represent the 36 righteous individuals on whose behalf God preserves the world — even if the behavior of the rest of humanity has been gravely amiss. (Thirty-six is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters “lamed” and “vov.”) As the French writer Andre Schwarz-Bart wrote in his Holocaust novel “The Last of the Just”, “If just one of them were lacking … humanity would suffocate with a single cry. For the Lamed Vov are the hearts of the world multiplied, and into them, as into one receptacle, pour all our grief.”
What does all this have to do with Fischer?
During the High Holidays, I wrote about the escalating number of politicians saying insulting things to women and then offering false apologies.
But in the two months or so since then, the phenomenon hasn’t faded — in fact, it’s worsened. First, State Rep. Roger Rivard said some girls “rape so easy.” Then, Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh denied the reality of life-saving abortions.
This week was the mother of them all. Meet Illinois Senate Candidate Richard Mourdock:
Mourdock, who’s been locked in a tight race with Democratic challenger Rep. Joe Donnelly, was asked during the final minutes of a debate whether abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest.
“I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to realize that life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happened,” Mourdock said.
His comments shocked the punditry, and the Obama campaign was quick to point out Romney’s endorsement of the candidate and tie them to each other. Numerous progressive sites sent out petitions and messages urging the GOP to drop its endorsement of Mourdock. Everyone was in a tizzy, which made sense except for the fact that they really shouldn’t have been, because this heinous thinking isn’t new. The “children conceived in rape are a gift from God” idea is a point of view that has been expressed by Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and other outspoken voices of today’s social conservative movement.
Naomi Zeveloff has a story in this week’s Forward about a full-size replica of the Western Wall in the works in Wichita, Kansas targeted towards women who have had abortions.
An anti-abortion group, the Word of Life Church, is proposing to build this multimillion dollar “National Pro-Life Memorial and International Life Center” in the same city where abortion provider Dr. George Tiller lived and was gunned down by an anti-choice terrorist.
Included as a central aspect of the memorial, should it be built, will be a garden of crosses to represent what leaders call the “Holocaust” and “genocide” of the unborn, in addition to the replica of the wall. Pro-choice website RH Reality Check sees the memorial’s plans as part of a dangerous “my pro-life is bigger than your pro-life culture” which fosters extremism.
This plan is problematic, even offensive in so, so, so many ways. First of all, if any memorial gets built in Wichita it should be for Dr. Tiller who was a friend to women and a deeply compassionate provider.
Pro-lifers are having a busy month. There is the Personhood amendment set to pass November 8th in a general election vote in Mississippi, with support from Democrats and Republicans, which would define human life as legally beginning at fertilization. This would render all abortions and morning-after pills illegal, and, according to some, could result on bans of certain birth control pills and in-vitro fertilization.
And just a few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed the “Protect Life Act” which would prohibit women from receiving coverage for abortion from any federally-funded insurance policy, and, potentially, abortions in federally-funded hospitals even if the women have a life-threatening condition.
The Personhood movement, as well as the anti-choice movement, in general, says that they are trying to comply with divine law, as opposed to civil law, and rely upon portions of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles to make that claim. But when I decided to take a look at the texts they say inspire these “divine” laws, I couldn’t find one place that unequivocally said that life begins at conception. Befuddling! And so I decided to email two smart women who know this stuff way better than I do, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, and Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, to help clear up what exactly these portions do and don’t say about when life begins. Well, it looks like some Mississippians could use a Sunday school refresher course before they go using their divine interpretations to change our civil laws. Not that Americans are supposed to be using divine law to inspire civil laws anyway (See: Constitution).
Crisis Pregnancy Centers, or CPCs, are problematic for many reasons. These centers, which are designed as sneaky alternatives to abortion clinics, have been shown time and again to give women misleading, medically inaccurate information and to almost always have a conservative Christian agenda. The number of CPCs far outweighs the number of places where women can go to terminate their pregnancies in this country.
They position themselves as offering “options” for women at a time of need, and parade out sonogram machines and staff in white coats. But they don’t disclose the fact that none of their options include abortion, and that women who want abortions will receive no help from them — and are likely to be stalled or dissuaded.
They have been known to shame and humiliate pregnant women who come to them in the most desperate situations. This cartoon by Susie Cagle was a result of her own undercover investigation of local CPCs. Her project is an excellent primer on CPCs for those unfamiliar with the topic.