Can We Talk About Abortion?
One of my favorite television shows is the British series, “Call the Midwife,” set in the East End of London in the late 1950s. Now in its eleventh season, the show dramatizes the work and lives of the midwives serving the community, and the cultural and medical changes of the 1950s and mid-1960s that affected women’s lives in particular.
A baby is born in every episode, an occasion of much joy. New life is celebrated as the miracle that it is. But several episodes also focus on abortion, which was illegal during those years except when deemed necessary to save the mother’s life. The show’s writers treat every character seeking to terminate a pregnancy with wholehearted sympathy. Whether unmarried, married to an abusive man, or married but so impoverished that the thought of another mouth to feed sends a woman to her emotional breaking point, these women, and the risks they took to obtain illegal, amateur, dangerous “back alley” procedures that sometimes led to tragic, needless deaths, elicit our sympathy.
“Call the Midwife” is set in a Catholic institution run by nuns who are also nurse-midwives, yet no one ever expresses any qualms about either abortion or the advent of birth control pills, which became available in 1961, both of which posed theological problems for the Catholic church. Instead, the show depicts abortion as an inarguable moral good.
The lack of nuance on the show mirrors the lack of nuance in the ongoing slugfest about abortion in the U.S. Now, with the anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, the arguments are at fever pitch. Abortion proponents are furious, declaring the highest court of the land illegitimate. Members of a group called Ruth Sent Us have protested in front of the homes of several Justices. Others have protested in front of Catholic churches. Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page shows a map warning that half the states will “quickly” move to outlaw abortion, predicting a domino effect from “fetal heartbeat” legislation in Texas and Oklahoma that would ban abortion as early as six weeks.
Roe’s legal foundation was always shaky, finding a right to abortion based on the constitution’s right to privacy. Even abortion supporters including the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose name is invoked with religious fervor among this crowd, realized it was a faulty ruling. In his drafted opinion overturning Roe, Justice Samuel Alito quoted Ginsburg, who had said, “Roe … halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction and thereby, I believed, prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.”
That said, a significant majority of Americans believe in the right to abortion within humane limits. This week’s YouGov/The Economist poll finds that 57% of U.S. adults support legal abortion in most or all cases, while only 14% approve of an outright ban. Yet among the hardliners, both rhetoric and actions have become extreme. The accepted position in the Democrat party used to be for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” Now, abortion is legal up to twenty-four weeks in many states and calls for abortion on demand — even during the third trimester, when a fetus is viable — are growing. This week, the Senate begins debate on the Women’s Health Protection Act, which supporters say would only codify Roe v. Wade into law, but which those opposed say is overly permissive and would invalidate abortion restrictions legislated by individual states. The bill is not expected to pass.
There has been a decided shift in the rhetoric surrounding abortion. It used to be about “a woman’s right to choose.” Now, we hear that “abortion is healthcare.” Ironically, the PC language police now insist on calling expectant mothers “pregnant people” or “birthing people” rather than “women.” This might make abortion tougher to sell as an inviolable right of women to have autonomy over their own bodies—something they were denied throughout most of human history.
The anti-abortion lobby has their own extremists, many of whom believe that life begins at the moment of conception. If life begins at conception, it follows that even first-trimester abortions are murder. Several states already severely limit access to abortion, and others seem poised to follow the lead of Texas and Oklahoma, outlawing abortion after six weeks or when a fetal heartbeat is first detected. But many women do not even realize they are pregnant until after that time. Given the growing calls for stricter limits on abortion in many states, fears about abortion restrictions — if not outright bans — are understandable. But the rhetoric of “abortion is healthcare” and placards that insist, “My body. My rights. My choice. My voice” cover up uncomfortable truths. When a woman is pregnant, one body is in the process of becoming two. Accountability requires that “My” becomes “Our.” As the never-ending and emotionally charged arguments over abortion show, most people have a primal sense that a fetus is a human being in formation.
Almost never discussed by proponents of abortion is the sorrow and even PTSD that some women experience after having abortions. Told by the abortion lobby that it’s “no big deal,” they are often unprepared for the emotional aftershocks. This hushed-up impact on women’s health is well-documented in the book “Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student,” by Miriam Grossman, M.D., who was forced to first publish this book as “Anonymous,” for fear of retribution.
There are different Jewish views about when human life begins, but abortion unquestioningly has a place in Jewish law.
There are different Jewish views about when human life begins, but abortion unquestioningly has a place in Jewish law. Even according to the strictest view that a fetus is a human life from the point of conception — a view expressed by the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who is considered one of the 20th century’s greatest halachic decision-makers — if the mother’s life is endangered in any way, abortion is not only permitted but mandated. In Jewish law, the mother’s life always has primacy over the baby’s.
In response to the leak about the Supreme Court decision, the Orthodox Union issued a statement saying they do not support absolute bans on abortion, warning that any absolute bans on abortion “without regard for the health of the mother would literally limit our ability to live our lives in accordance with our responsibility to preserve life.”
The OU also does not support abortions on demand that aren’t deemed essential to a woman’s physical or mental health: “Jewish law places paramount value on choosing life and mandates — not as a right but as a responsibility — safeguarding our own lives and the lives of others by behaving in a healthy and secure manner, doing everything in our power to save lives, and refraining from endangering others. This concern for even potential life extends to the unborn fetus and to the terminally ill.”
The Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the international association for Conservative/Masorti rabbis, also issued a statement: “Reproductive freedom is again under assault, this time from the highest court in our nation. The RA supports full access for all those who need abortions to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by governmental, private entities, or individuals to limit or dismantle such access.”
The RA “has affirmed the right of a pregnant person to choose an abortion in cases where ‘continuation of a pregnancy might cause severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.’ … Jewish tradition cherishes the sanctity of life, including the potential of life during pregnancy, but does not believe that personhood and human rights begin with conception, but rather with birth as indicated by Exodus 21:22-23.”
With such a gaping chasm between hardliners on both sides, how can we even talk about abortion? Extremes on one side of an argument inevitably lead to extreme reactions on the other. Abortion bans without regard to cases of rape, incest, or the physical or emotional health of the mother are cruel. Likewise, refusing to acknowledge that abortion is about more than a woman’s agency over her own body but about her responsibility to another life she helped create is also cruel.
Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all agree that sometimes, abortion is necessary, even as we acknowledge the loss of human potential? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if, indeed, abortion was safe, legal—and rare?
Both positions harden our hearts. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all agree that sometimes, abortion is necessary, even as we acknowledge the loss of human potential? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if, indeed, abortion was safe, legal—and rare?
Judy Gruen’s latest book is “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”