Women's Health: A Lasting Commitment of the Reform Movement
Recent weeks have brought the issues of birth control, health care, and other reproductive rights into the forefront of our country’s political debates. In the background of these debates is a steady stream of voices saying that women are being left out of these discussions. As a woman and a Rabbi I wanted to speak out this week, via e-KI, to teach about Reform Judaism’s views on some of these issues. In writing this I come from a place of religious education, not preaching or endorsing any political position.
The Reform Movement has been discussing issues related to abortion since 1967. But answers to questions about when life begins according to Jewish tradition can be derived from the Torah itself and are clearly discussed in the Talmud, and by noted thinkers Rashi and Rambam. In every case there is no question that Jewish law understands life to begin when the head or a majority of the body enters the world. Exodus 21:22 details that causing a miscarriage is not murder and we read in the Mishna (c. 200 A.D.) that if the mother’s life is in danger, her life takes precedence over an unborn fetus, until the time when a majority of the fetus’s body enters the world. Rambam explains that the unborn fetus is like one who “pursues” and the mother must act in self defense. Later Rabbis understand that there are many ways to understand a mother’s life to be in danger both mentally and physically.
The Reform Movement in 1967 began with a humane plea on behalf of the toll that illegal abortions were taking on women. In its 1975 resolution the movement declares, “The Supreme Court held that the question of when life begins is a matter of religious belief and not medical or legal fact. While recognizing the right of religious groups whose beliefs differ from ours to follow the dictates of their faith in this matter, we vigorously oppose the attempts to legislate the particular beliefs of those groups into the law that governs us all.”
While all of these matters are sensitive and deeply personal one must understand that the current political climate is attempting to turn back the tide and legislate when life begins. This is a clear violation of our religious beliefs. Speaking with a voice of compassion, the Reform Movement has consistently discouraged attempts to impose restrictions on abortions, such as those that have existed in Pennsylvania since a 1994 law required that a woman be shown pictures and given information about her fetus’s development and new legislation being proposed this month in Pennsylvania requiring an ultrasound prior to abortion. These laws can be excessively painful to the mother.
All streams of Judaism believe in the sanctity of life above all. It is because of this belief that termination of a pregnancy is viewed as both a moral and correct decision under some circumstances, according to the Reform Movement. This same sanctity underscores the vital need for medically accurate sexuality education and for high-quality family planning services, both of which are also currently under attack.
This week in our Torah portion we read about the building of a Sanctuary – a holy place to dwell. We here at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA are a holy sanctuary, one which joins in worship and prayer, in communal activity and education. We have also risen up to speak out for what is right according to our tradition. As an educator I cannot help but believe that knowledge is power. May this information enable you to speak out for what is right this Shabbat and every Shabbat.
Rabbi Stacy Eskovitz Rigler is the Director of Education at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, PA and a member of the Commission on Social Action.