The recent passage of a law in Alabama restricting almost all abortions has once again generated fierce debate in the US and indeed around the world on this sensitive issue.
Yet in the Jewish state, abortion is noticeable perhaps for the very absence of debate over it, especially bearing in mind the fierce battles fought over women’s divorce rights, and discrimination against women in the public domain.
But in Israel, abortion is legal, easily accessible and state-funding for it is widely accessible, although the state nevertheless does not automatically grant the right to terminate a pregnancy.
To gain approval for an abortion in Israel, a woman must obtain approval from a pregnancy termination committee comprised of a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology, an additional medical specialist and a social worker.
There are currently 39 such committees in hospitals and medical centers around the country.
To approve an abortion, the woman making the request must meet one of five criteria, including if the woman is younger than 18 or older than 40; if she is not married, or the pregnancy is not from her husband; if the pregnancy is the result of an incestuous sexual relationship, rape or statutory rape; if the child is likely to be born with a physical or mental birth defect; and if continuation of the pregnancy is liable to endanger the life of the mother or cause her physical or emotional harm.
The rate of approval in the approval committees is extremely high, with 19,254 abortions approved in 2016 out of 19,754 requested, constituting 98% of all applications.
According to a report by the Central Bureau of Statistics, some 53% of women who applied for an abortion in 2016 did so on the basis that the pregnancy was a result of a relationship with a man who was not their husband.
A special committee which comprises five members is required to approve an abortion past the 24th week of a pregnancy.
Any woman under the age of 33 can get an abortion funded through their public health insurance program, while those older than 33 may also get a state-funded abortion if the pregnancy is a risk to her life, if the fetus may have a physical or mental defector, or if the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest.
Although public debate in Israel over abortion is nothing like the political and culture wars waged in the US, there is still a significant dispute over the issue in the Jewish state.
Dr. Eli Schussheim, who heads the Efrat organization that advocates against abortion, is adamantly against restricting abortion through legal means, calling the battle fought by conservatives in the US “totally stupid.”
He is, however, critical of Israel’s abortion laws which he describes as “one of the most liberal in the world,” arguing that the criteria which allows for an abortion due to physical or mental harm to the woman can be too broadly used.
Nevertheless, Efrat’s approach is to try and persuade women considering an abortion that doing so will have a long-term negative affect on their mental health.
The organization provides various forms of support to women who decide not to have an abortion, including financial support for the first two years after a baby is born.
“You can’t stop abortions through laws in any way, and not through moral, religious or values-based ways, it won’t help,” said Schussheim. “You need to simply solve the woman’s problem, and prove to her that if she has an abortion she will pay a heavy price to her mental health. She will have mental scars for her whole life. It’s something she can never forget or wipe out from her memory.”
Schussheim said that the majority of women who turn to Efrat regarding a possible abortion say they are considering it for economic reasons.
“I promise to women that they will never be sorry if they do not go through with an abortion and have the baby instead,” he said, asserting that of the 74,600 women who received help through the organization have not regretted carrying their pregnancy to term.
Director of the Israel Women’s Network, Attorney Michal Gera Margaliot, sees things very differently.
She is extremely critical of the Alabama law, calling it “absolutely awful,” noting that it bans abortion regardless of the age of the woman, and even if the pregnancy was caused by rape or incest.
“It is a terrible retreat for women’s rights in general and the right of women over their own bodies,” said Gera Margaliot.
She also argued that women do not abandon their desire to have an abortion if it is not legal, and find other ways to do it, including through means that could endanger their own lives.
With regard to Israel’s abortion laws, Gera Margaliot described the law as “problematic” and “not very progressive” because “it requires a woman who wants to have an abortion for whatever reason to go through a committee and comply with one of five criteria, which they do not always meet.”
She said that to obtain approval for an abortion outside of the five categories, for example for economic or social reasons, many women lie and state that the pregnancy came about through a relationship with a man who was not their husband.
Gera Margaliot stated that some 90% of abortions in Israel are conducted during the first trimester, before the 12th week of the pregnancy.
She took exception, however, to the modus operandi of the Efrat organization in taking out large advertisements with emotive messages against abortion on buses, in public places and on the radio.
Indeed, such advertisements have evoked significant opposition with attempts made to ban them from the radio last year.
“An unwanted child is irreversible, it changes someones life and it can greatly harm someone’s mental health,” Gera Margaliot said. “Not all parents are happy that they’ve had a child, it’s not fantasy, not all stories have a happy end.”
“This is an attempt to brainwash people in the middle of the public domain against terminating a pregnancy, and abortions can themselves save lives,” she added.
She said, however, that she does not expect the severe public battles witnessed in the US to transpire in Israel.
“I very much hope there are no further restrictions on abortion,” Gera Margaliot said. “If there would be an attempt to change the law there would be a massive fight, women in Israel simply wouldn’t accept it.”
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