'Iris," a single woman of about 30 with blond-streaked hair, tight jeans and bare midriff, is staring at a wall covered with pictures of babies, wiping tears from her cheeks, trying to decide whether to have her third abortion or keep the baby that's been growing in her for over a month.
"I want the baby, of course I want the baby, but I'm so confused, I don't know what to do, everything to me looks black," she says, sitting in the ground floor office suite in Jerusalem's Kiryat Moshe neighborhood that is the headquarters of Efrat Organization for the Encouragement of Jewish Childbirth. Efrat's 3,000 zealous, nearly all-Orthodox volunteers seek out Jewish women considering abortion and try to steer them toward giving birth. Although it has no official religious affiliation, it is nevertheless the action arm of Orthodox Jewry's wishful project to limit abortions by Israeli Jewish women, which run about 20,000 a year for legal abortions. The number of illegal abortions performed annually is estimated to be anywhere from 20,000 to 50,000.
Iris says she would have the baby if the father, her long-time boyfriend, weren't overseas because a prison term is waiting for him here. She has no job, no apartment, her father would never allow her to live at home with an illegitimate child, and all her friends tell her she's crazy to even think of having it.
"They tell me a child needs a decent home, a family, money, and I'll be giving him a terrible life, that he'll become a criminal," she says.
"Why are you so sure the baby won't have a good life?" asks Ruth Tidhar, Efrat's social worker, who is gently trying to talk Iris into being adopted, in a manner of speaking, by the organization. Iris was contacted by Efrat and invited to come in for a talk after a volunteer met her by chance through another friend and heard her distressing dilemma.
In the last 30 years, Efrat has given material and emotional support to more than 17,000 Israeli Jewish women who were considering abortion, thus helping them toward the decision to give birth. Like Iris, most of Efrat's charges are economically hard-up, Mizrahi and "traditionally" religious.
"God willing the child will have a good life, I pray all the prayers for his welfare," says Iris. "But why should the child suffer? You see, my life is in such a mess."
"A baby will straighten it out. You'll be responsible for somebody else, that's what you need," says Tidhar.
The social worker offers to send Iris to one of Efrat's "foster homes" apartments owned by volunteers who take in expectant mothers who had been thinking of abortion. Until the baby is 11 months old, Efrat, which runs on private donations and whose overseas headquarters is in Brooklyn, will provide Iris the full complement of baby accessories and food.
"For at least the first year, you won't have anything to worry about," Tidhar assures her.
But Iris still isn't completely convinced. She says she feels "so alone, so frightened." She pulls out a photo of her boyfriend to show the social worker. "You want to have a child with your husband. There's nothing like having a child with your husband," she says.
"Even without a husband," says Tidhar, "there's nothing like a child."
With that, Iris nods her head.
"I'm going to have the baby," she says with quiet finality.
She gives Tidhar some forms she's filled out, a photo of her ultrasound examination and her bus receipts for the ride to the office, for which she will be reimbursed by Efrat.
"I feel like a huge weight has been lifted from me," she says, thanking Tidhar profusely as she leaves.
Afterward, the social worker says the organization will pair Iris with one of its volunteers, many of whom are women who themselves decided against abortion after Efrat's intervention, and who often became hozeret b'tshuva newly religious in the process. The volunteer will call Iris every few days, they'll go out for coffee, "they'll have a personal relationship," says Tidhar. Around the fifth month of Iris's pregnancy, when she will no longer be able to hide it from her father at home, she will move into one of Efrat's "foster homes."
"I know how this ends, I've seen it a million times," says Tidhar, a veteran immigrant from New York. "She's going to be lying in a hospital bed saying, 'What a beautiful baby, I can't believe I ever thought about doing that.' After they give birth, these women can't even bring themselves to say the word 'abortion.'"
ON THE walls of Efrat's offices are photos showing prominent rabbis, including former chief rabbis Ovadia Yosef, Yisrael Meir Lau and Mordechai Eliahu, as honored guests at the organization's events. The anti-abortion cause in Israel is the nearly sole property of Orthodox Jews. In tandem with elements of Likud and other right-wing parties, the religious parties time and again register a bloc vote against attempts by Shinui, Meretz and some MKs in the Labor Party to liberalize Israel's abortion law. (Arab parties vote with the religious bloc on this issue; because of Arab society's conservatism and paternalism, abortion is rare among Israeli Arab women.) The Israeli religious establishment would like to curtail the abortion law to bring it in line with Halacha, or Jewish law, which permits abortion only when the pregnancy endangers the mother's life, or, in a minority halachic view, if it greatly endangers the mother's health.
"I don't see any possibility of changing the law to our liking in the near future," says Shas MK and former health minister Nissim Dahan. He explains that the anti-abortion caucus is only a minority in the Knesset, and that Shas, for its part, is wary of passing new legislation that could incite the secular public against the Orthodox, which the debut of a halachic abortion law certainly would do.
While Jewish law is much stricter about abortion than Israeli temporal law, it is far more liberal than Roman Catholicism, which considers the fetus being every bit as alive, and therefore as endowed with human dignity and holiness, as a person. Halacha, by contrast, considers the fetus to be independently alive, to be more than just another part of the mother's body, but whose life has less value than that of a person.
"Jewish law does not treat the killing of a fetus like the killing of a newborn," according to Rabbi Mordechai Halperin, a fertility physician and Israel's leading authority on Halacha and medicine. The source of the halachic position on abortion is found in the Torah's Book of Exodus, Chapter 21, Verses 22-23, says Halperin, director of Shaare Zedek Medical Center's Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics.
In a 2002 article in the magazine Refuah U'Mishpat (Medicine and Law), he writes that the root of the Halacha on abortion is contained in the Torah portion "where it determines the punishment of someone who, in the course of a fight, causes a woman to miscarry: 'And if people struggle and harm a pregnant woman such that she miscarries...' The Torah distinguishes between two different acts: If the assailant also kills the woman, he is guilty of murder, whereas [the Torah holds that] if 'no tragedy occurs' and the assailant only kills the fetus, he is to pay compensation and is not guilty of murder."
But in the State of Israel, the law of the land was passed in 1980 by the Knesset. It says a woman can have a legal abortion for one of four reasons: she became pregnant as a result of extramarital sex, rape or incest (the reason cited in 54% of legal abortions in 2003); the pregnancy endangers her health, either physical or mental (18%); the fetus is likely to have mental or physical defects (17%); she is younger than 17 or older than 40 years of age (11%). The decision to grant a woman a legal abortion rests with a committee of doctors and social workers at the hospital performing the abortion, which interviews the woman first.
In 2003, hospital committees approved 98 percent of requests for abortions.
Along the international spectrum of abortion laws, Israel stands on the liberal side. It is more restrictive than the US, which, for all its decades of bitter, religion-driven controversy, still grants women the right to abortion on demand. (The US Supreme Court, in its Roe vs. Wade decision, ruled that abortion falls under the constitutional right to privacy.) Israel's law is somewhat less restrictive, though, than England's. In general, the most liberal countries on abortion are the English-speaking ones (except Ireland) and those in Western Europe, while the most restrictive are in the Muslim Middle East and Catholic Latin America.
SHINUI, LIKE other secular, liberal and feminist movements in Israel, would like to steer Israel all the way to the permissive end of the spectrum and make abortion available on demand even though activists acknowledge that in practice, any Israeli woman who wants a safe abortion can get it, either legally or illegally. (Through the first seven weeks of pregnancy, government hospital committees typically prescribe Mifegyne pills, which bring on miscarriage in two days. Otherwise, operations are performed in hospitals, clinics or private gynecologists' offices.)
"The law is hypocritical it forces women to tell lies in front of these committees in order to get approval for a legal abortion," says MK Reshef Cheyne, head of the Shinui Knesset faction.
Without a parliamentary majority for making abortion available on demand, Cheyne has tried to liberalize the law by reinstating a fifth legal justification for abortion the mother's economic hardship, which used to be on the list of acceptable reasons before it was removed by a religious-Right coalition in 1980. A coalition of these same elements beat back Cheyne's proposal to change the law back earlier this year.
Adherents of the "pro-choice" movement in Israel, the US and elsewhere are careful to explain that they are "not pro-abortion" they don't think abortion is a good thing, only that it should be up to the pregnant woman alone to decide whether to have one. The "pro-life" movement has, nevertheless, tagged people who are "pro-choice" as being effectively "pro-abortion."
Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of public policy for the Reform movement's Israel Action Center in Jerusalem, is himself "pro-choice." Yet he acknowledges that the broader movement, in its battle for freedom and against religious coercion, can forget that the fate of a human fetus in a woman's womb is a grave matter, and that what's at stake in the controversy is not only women's rights but the prospect, at least, of human life.
"Because the liberal camp is battling against a religiously fundamentalistic outlook, we very often close our eyes and don't consider all the aspects of abortion that we should consider as part of our humanistic outlook," says Kariv. "I believe in a woman's right to control her own body, but there is also the issue of the holiness of life, of what science tells us about the fetus, what the fetus is feeling during pregnancy. We know things today we didn't know 20 years ago the fetus can hear, some researchers even suggest that the fetus can dream. Our movement believes in science, so we can't run away from this.
"We in the liberal camp cannot let every abortion issue except the woman's right to control her body fall into the hands of the fundamentalists," he continues. "My fear is that in the liberal discourse on abortion, because it is up against a very fundamentalist approach, we lose our sensitivity to the fact that we are talking about the first stirrings of human life."
He thinks the Israeli system strikes the right balance between effectively letting any woman who wants an abortion have one, but on the other hand not treating it as a mere technical matter, and instead requiring her to justify her decision before doctors and social workers, to consider alternatives, to give serious thought to a fateful choice.
IN HER fourth floor office at Rebecca Sieff Medical Center in Safed, Dr. Shifra Zohar, head of the hospital's Obstetrics-Gynecology Department for the last 20 years, is being harried by phone calls from local reporters asking about the remarkable run of twins who've been born on the ward in recent days. She's eager to give the news, though, both because it's a happy item and because it's good PR for the hospital. Zohar, who heads Sieff's abortion committee known in the trade by its euphemism "committee on pregnancy matters" is emphatically pro-birth.
"My inclination is definitely against abortion, especially after all the physical problems and mental suffering I've seen in women who do it," Zohar says.
The committee, which includes two senior gynecologists and a social worker, hears requests for abortions Sunday and Tuesday afternoons in a little room at the end of the ward. The most common requests come from unmarried women who don't want to be single mothers. If the woman and the father of the unborn child have a serious relationship, Zohar says she tries to convince the woman not to have the abortion and instead get married.
"Usually it's the fellow who doesn't want to get married, not the girl, but we've convinced some of them to marry and have the child," she says.
Many women who come to the committee want, in principle, to have the baby, but out of ignorance or excessive fear have become convinced that the medicine or X-rays they took are going to cause birth defects in the child.
"In these cases we reassure the woman that she will have the full battery of tests to make sure that she and the fetus are healthy," Zohar says.
But women who are open to persuasion are rare among those the committee sees. Ordinarily the woman comes in having made up her mind to have the abortion, and attempts to convince her otherwise are futile, says Zohar. An abortion at Sieff, a government hospital, costs about NIS 1,400. "Iris" paid over NIS 3,000 for each of her two abortions at a private hospital in the center of the country.
As for women telling lies to the committee claiming, for instance, that the pregnancy is driving her into a deepening depression when in fact she just doesn't want a child, or another child, to take up her time Zohar says she can't say whether it happens or not. At Efrat, though, general manager Haggai Goldschmidt points to Health Ministry statistics showing that even after the economic hardship clause was removed from the list of legitimate reasons for abortion, the number of legal abortions didn't go down; all that happened was that women who in the past would have claimed economic hardship began claiming mental distress instead.
"That's why we don't invest any effort or money anymore into lobbying for a change in the law. It's like tilting at windmills," says Goldschmidt.
One obvious alternative to abortion for many single women, it would seem, is for them to have the baby and give it up for adoption especially when it is nearly impossible to adopt a newborn in Israel. But there is a reason why it's so hard because women are simply loath to give up their babies for adoption, says Tidhar.
"You can't suggest that to a woman here because she'll just run and have an abortion," she says. "Women, or at least Jewish women, have an 'I, me, mine' attitude, that if they can't keep this baby, it shouldn't live." (On the day I was in Efrat's office, Tidhar took a telephone call from a pregnant woman inquiring about giving her baby up for adoption; the social worker referred her to a local Child Welfare agency. "We only get a few of those in a year," she remarked.)
JUDGING BY the growth in Efrat's activities, the anti-abortion cause in Israel has been catching on in recent years. In 2000, the organization was "saving" fewer than 200 babies a year; last year, the number reached 1,648. (The statistics reflect the number of pregnant women who, after contact with Efrat volunteers, decide to keep their babies and begin receiving the organization's assistance.)
One reason for this growth is Efrat's hasbara effort it has distributed some one million anti-abortion CDs and brochures, mainly to teenage girls. Another reason is the new Israeli preoccupation with demography the fear that because of Israeli Arabs' high birthrate, the country's 80% Jewish majority will dwindle to where the state's Jewish character becomes threatened. In a short film shown to pregnant women who come to the Kiryat Moshe office, President Moshe Katsav, a long-time supporter of Efrat, is heard addressing the organization: "Never in Jewish history has there been a time when this mission is more urgent than it is today." (See box.)
Efrat pursues its mission with such energy that it has become the lightning rod in Israel for the pro-choice movement's ire. The Israel Action Center is appealing to the Supreme Court against the practice by the civilian National Service (Sherut Leumi) of sending 18-20-year-old girls, all or virtually all of them religious, to work at Efrat. A recent television magazine piece on the organization reported that National Service girls go with Efrat volunteers to hospitals and try to talk women coming to the abortion committees into having their babies.
"National Service is supposed to be devoted to national, apolitical civilian causes," says Kariv. "If an organization dedicated to a controversial, political, ideological agenda can ask for and receive National Service girls to work for free, then we can ask for National Service girls to come help us fight for religious freedom, and the Yesha Council can ask for National Service girls to help it fight against disengagement."
Incensed by Efrat's efforts, Cheyne last year proposed a law that would make it illegal for anyone but a licensed physician to give medical advice, and then only upon request. The proposal was opposed by the Health Ministry, and failed in Knesset, he says. Cheyne also proposed barring Efrat activists from approaching pregnant women inside public hospitals, but the Health Ministry argued that such a measure was unnecessary because government hospitals were already instructing Efrat activists to stay outside, the MK notes.
"I believe in freedom of speech, of course, but to approach pregnant women at a time of such distress for them is an invasion of their privacy, and their right to privacy should outweigh Efrat's right to exercise its freedom of speech in that manner," says Cheyne.
Tidhar and Goldschmidt maintain that National Service girls only do office work for Efrat and do not go out with volunteers to the hospitals. Above all, says the social worker, "We do not force any woman to listen to us. Any woman who takes our literature, or talks to our volunteers, or comes into this office, is a woman who does not want to have an abortion. Otherwise why would she be listening?"
I ask to watch the volunteers at work at one of the hospitals, and Tidhar refers me to Yehudit Rothschild, who organizes the effort against abortions at Sieff. Rothschild, however, says she does not want to cooperate. When I go up to Sieff on a Tuesday afternoon, I find two women activists moving about the lobby outside the fourth floor gynecology ward. Looking for women headed into the abortion committee, the pair avoid the security guard who is under orders to keep them off the ward, where abortion applicants wait for their interviews.
"I was in the same condition as them, and now I'm pregnant, I'm going to be a single mother, and I'm so happy," says one activist, a woman in her early 20s wearing a long dress of the kind worn by many young religious Jewish women.
"I was in their situation, too," says her older, more assertive partner, a woman of about 35 dressed in a tight black pants suit. Asked if they are with Efrat, they reply that they are. But after a cellphone conversation or two with Rothschild, they decline to give their names or be interviewed further.
At one point, the security guard, who has been opening and closing the door to the ward for doctors and patients coming through, goes up to the woman in black. He demands to know if she used her cellphone to go up to the door while it was open and photograph the woman waiting just on the other side to go into the committee.
"Why should I take anybody's picture?" she says.
"I'm going to call the police," says the guard.
The two activists head for the elevator. Asked if she managed to make her pitch to anyone coming to request an abortion, the younger, pregnant activist grins and says she did.
"It was all very quiet, no big deal," she explains.
Her senior partner says over the cellphone, "I've got one mother I'll be talking to tonight."
Getting off at the ground floor, they evade the questions of the perturbed head of hospital security, and walk out the main exit.
Upstairs in Zohar's office, the head of security says the woman in black did indeed photograph the pregnant woman waiting to go into the abortion committee. He urges Zohar to begin calling the police every time anti-abortion activists show up and have them thrown out.
"Sometimes I do call the police on them," says Zohar. "They embarrass the women coming to the committee, they preach religion at them, they say that if they abort their babies they're going to 'lose their place in the world to come.' They make a terrible impression. If anything, they make the women w
ho come here even more convinced than ever to have an abortion."
Which is a tragedy, says Zohar, because abortion is a tragedy, even when it is legal, even when it is justified.
"You don't cry over the child that's born," the gynecologist notes, "you cry over the child that wasn't born." n