Prayers & Sermons
A Sermon for Jewish Congregations
A few years ago, a woman called the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, looking for rabbinic counseling. A divorced mother of two teenage sons, she was an active member of her local Jewish community, attended the Conservative synagogue regularly, and studied with a local Orthodox rabbi. She had had an abortion the previous week, at six weeks of pregnancy. She was very concerned that people in the small Jewish community would find out and disapprove. Her comment when speaking to the rabbi at the Religious Coalition was that, while it had always been her custom to light the Shabbat candles every Friday night, on that previous Friday night she did not because she did not feel "clean enough."
As a rabbi, that story is particularly poignant, because of that woman's pain and also because it points up to me what a bad job we rabbis have done in educating the Jewish community about Judaism's position on abortion. For the reality is, Judaism has always allowed for the possibility that abortion may, in some circumstances, not only be the best choice for a woman to make, but also may be the only possible choice for her to make. For the Mishnah says, in Oholot 7.6:
"If a woman has (life-threatening) difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. Once its head has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another."
Rabbinic commentators from the Middle Ages and into modern times agree that therapeutic abortion is not only warranted, it is actually mandated in Jewish law in cases in which the mother's life is at stake. For while the fetus is considered potential life- precious and sacred-it is not of equal status with the actual life of the woman, and therefore fetal life cannot take precedence over the existing life of the woman. As Rabbi Moses Sofer, the 19th Century scholar, wrote, "no woman is required to build up the world by destroying herself."
The Religious Right would like the American public to believe that for one to be religious, one must necessarily also be anti-choice. In reality, many religious leaders worked toward legalizing abortion long before Roe v. Wade. During the 1960s, horrified by the injuries and death suffered by women around the country due to illegal, unsafe abortions, they responded as people of faith and conscience must. Reverend Howard Moody and Arlene Carmen organized the first Clergy Consultation Service in New York City, a network of clergy who agreed to help women gain access to safe abortion providers. Similar services soon developed throughout the country.
It was during this time that the progressive movements within Judaism began to advocate for a liberalization of abortion laws. Because Jewish law and tradition allows for abortion, it becomes a matter of religious freedom for American Jews that the secular government not be involved in these personal moral decisions. This one sentence in the United States Constitution, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," has been the foundation of the success of the Jewish community in this country. Without this guarantee, we would be mere guests in this country, as we have been in so many other countries throughout our history, living at the sufferance of the rulers and of our neighbors.
On January 22, 2004, we observe the 31st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal in this country. As Jews, we celebrate this anniversary because the result of this decision is that women's lives have been saved. And in Judaism, there is no higher value than pikuach nefesh, saving a life. According to fact sheets from Planned Parenthood and the Center for Reproductive Rights, in 1965, abortion was so unsafe that 17 percent of all deaths due to pregnancy and childbirth were the result of illegal abortion; it is estimated that illegal abortion led to between 5,000 and 10,000 deaths per year. Today, abortion is 11 times safer than childbirth, and legal abortion has been associated with decreases in both maternal and infant mortality. According to one estimate, 1,500 pregnancy-related deaths were prevented in 1985 alone.
We also celebrate this anniversary because, as liberal Jews, we embrace the value of full equality for women, and we recognize that true equality can only be fully realized if women have control over their own reproductive lives. Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority decision in Roe, recognized this. He called the decision "a step that had to be taken as we go down the road toward the full emancipation of women."
Roe v. Wade came under attack almost from the moment it was decided. Today, 31 years later, Roe v. Wade is still under attack and is in real danger of being overturned, or so seriously undermined as to be de facto non-existent. Largely due to the efforts of the Religious Right, Roe v. Wade has been compromised and diluted and currently hangs by a judicial thread.
The First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom was eroded by the Religious Right's efforts to have its narrow view of when life begins become the law of the land, as in the 1989 Supreme Court case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services. This restrictive abortion law passed in Missouri contained in its preamble the statement that life begins at conception. The Supreme Court allowed that statement to stand in the preamble. Judaism, however, teaches that life begins at birth. Thus, the Webster decision struck at the very heart of the Constitutional guarantee regarding the separation of church and state, as it enshrined into law a religious belief held by some, but by no means all, Americans. Similar attempts by the Religious Right to enshrine in law their idea about the morality of abortion also threaten to strip away once and for all our right as Jews to believe and practice our own religious teachings.
Roe has been undermined in a host of different ways. In 1992, the Supreme Court decided, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, that states could impose restrictions on access to abortion as long as these restrictions did not pose an 'undue burden' on women's rights to reproductive freedom. This has opened the floodgates to all kinds of restrictive and even punitive laws, including waiting periods, informed consent laws by which women are made to listen to false and misleading information on abortion that is designed to discourage them from making this choice, and parental consent and parental notification laws, designed to make it extremely difficult for a minor to obtain an abortion.
These are just some of the legal barriers placed on a woman's right to choose. The facts on the ground are in some ways even more disturbing. Today, 87 percent of counties in the United States have no abortion provider at all. And the population of doctors who are willing and trained to perform abortions is aging, with few young doctors being trained to take their places. Religious institutions are taking over public hospitals and HMOs and imposing their religious views on abortion, contraception, and sterilization on the general population, often resulting in an end to these reproductive health services.
The latest, and in some ways most egregious, of the legal challenges to Roe is the so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, which President Bush has signed into law and which is being challenged in the courts. The rhetoric surrounding the debate on this law would have us believe that thousands of women, up to the final moments of pregnancy, are deciding on a whim to terminate their pregnancies and are obtaining abortions. In fact, 88 percent of abortions occur in the first 12-13 weeks of pregnancy. According to the National Abortion Federation, "Women have access to abortion in the third trimester only in extreme circumstances. Fewer than 2 percent of abortions are performed 21 weeks or after, and they are extremely rare after 26 weeks of pregnancy. Very few abortions are provided in the third trimester, and they are generally limited to cases of severe fetal abnormalities or situations when the life or health of the pregnant woman is seriously threatened." In reality, this legislation arose from a deceptive and corrupt misinformation campaign to inflame the public, confuse the media, criminalize doctors, and strip women of their ability to make medical decisions. Thirty-one years after Roe v. Wade, it should be unthinkable that a doctor could be prosecuted as a criminal for performing an abortion procedure, yet that is what would happen under this bill. The absence of a health exception makes it clear that the purpose of this legislation is to undermine the legality of all abortions throughout pregnancy, not to outlaw some procedures.
In 2000, the Supreme Court struck down a similar bill in Nebraska, in the case known as Stenberg v. Carhart. The vote was 5-4. This 5-4 vote in Stenberg is an ominous sign for Roe's future. The Supreme Court is only one vote away from overturning Roe, which would be one of the most radical actions taken in the history of the Court. Without Roe, life for American women would be thrown more than 30 years in reverse, returning them to the days when women could not fully control the number and spacing of their children. Without Roe, women will be forced to carry fetuses to full term even when those fetuses have no brain, no limbs, no heart.
It is our obligation as Jews, committed to social justice, partners with God in perfecting our world, to do all in our power to keep Roe as the law of the land. We must speak out, we must vote, we must march, picket and protest. We must let our lawmakers know that we will not allow them to turn back the clock on women's rights!
Most mitzvot are to be fulfilled as the occasion arises. There are only two instances where we are actively enjoined to seek out opportunities to fulfill a particular commandment. They are "Seek peace and pursue it," and "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." When we as Jews advocate for reproductive freedom, we are pursuing justice for women and seeking peace among the diverse religious communities of this country.
Finally, because we are talking about much more than abortion, because we are talking about the social and economic injustices in our society that both make abortion necessary and so often make it inaccessible to those who need it, for this reason I believe we are commanded by God, the prophets, and our own moral consciences to stand up and speak out to ensure justice and freedom of choice for all.
And this is truly holy work.
Ken yehi ratzon - let it be God's will.