Now Is the Time to Step Forward to Protect Reproductive Rights
Clergy played an important role in the struggle to make safe and legal abortion a reality. With the 44th anniversary of the landmark U. S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade on January 22nd, and as extreme politicians are threatening access to women’s health care that includes birth control, cancer screenings, and more, let’s turn to a page in history that led to legal abortion.
Six years before the Roe decision, the front page of The New York Times announced the formation of the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (the Service). The Times listed 21 New York City religious leaders by name and congregation– including Rabbi Israel Margolies of Beth Am-The People’s Temple and Rabbi Lewis Bogage of Central Synagogue – and their offer to counsel women about pregnancy and refer them for safe and affordable abortion. This was the same year that the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional association of the Reform rabbinate, affirmed, “We strongly urge the broad liberalization of abortion laws in the various states, and call upon our members to work toward this end.”
The clergy came forward out of the painful pastoral experience of counseling women and families, having supported desperate women trying to self-abort, or turning to whomever said they could help and paying whatever was asked. And the clergy witnessed medical catastrophes: children born injured and deformed, and women suffering permanent injury or death. For some clergy, one trip to the cemetery with a bereft family demonstrated the truth: a woman knows whether her pregnancy is right for her, when she is convinced it must end, no one can decide otherwise for her, and capable and caring medical attention, not a sermon, is in her best interest.
Once abortion became legal and available in 1973, the Service disbanded – after growing into a national network of 1,400 clergy that referred more than 100,000 women for safe and affordable abortion care without a single fatality.
One of the ministers tells a heart wrenching story of a teen impregnated by a relative. The family came to him for help – but he had no idea where to send them and turned them away, never learning what happened. Based on the circumstances – their desperation and the options – he imagined the worst and swore he’d do better when again facing that situation. So, he helped found the Service. He today reflects, “Her deliberation is more important to me than the status of her pregnancy. Of course, her pregnancy has value. It’s just that her ability to make a decision has a higher moral standing.” Judaism, as well, has long taught that when a pregnancy threatens a woman’s life or health, her well-being has priority. And Reform Judaism affirms that each one of us has the right – the responsibility, really – to weigh Jewish teaching and come to informed conclusions that set the course of our lives.
To be sure, Judaism teaches that her fetus has a moral standing, but her moral standing is even higher; she comes first. Her deliberations, her considerations have priority. As a rabbi, I tell people what the tradition says, and describe the variety of options within the faith. They study, deliberate, conclude, and act. I cannot force them to think or do differently. Individuals come to their own decision in their own way, and live their lives as they decide in their heart.
Abortion is one of the most commonly performed and safest medical procedures in the United States, and it is tragic that women face being mischaracterized and stigmatized, their exercise of moral agency sullied by those in politics and religion who seek to impose themselves into a women’s personal medical decision but have no business entering the deliberation. It is important that abortion remain a safe and legal medical procedure for a woman to consider, if she needs it; no politician should intervene, blame, or punish.
Leaders of Reform Judaism have consistently called for keeping abortion safe, legal, accessible, and affordable. We make this commitment known through teaching, preaching, endorsing statements, and the work we do each day. As our nation marks Roe’s 44th anniversary, we witness troubling threats to access to reproductive medical care, including birth control, cancer screenings, and more. In the face of what can become a national health care disaster, we need to step forward and express our support to protect reproductive health and rights.