Pregnant with possibilities

Be'ad Chaim/Lilach's Shoshani: 'Pro-life' means having choice not to abort.

Sandy Shoshani 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sandy Shoshani 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is either a sign of the times - or of my own stereotyping - that my initial assumption about Be'ad Chaim director Sandy Shoshani, an American-born mother of seven, is that she must be Orthodox. Who else would be running a "pro-life" organization in the center of Jerusalem? But as soon as the 51-year-old veteran immigrant from Boston opens the door to "Lilach" - the organization's street-name, so to speak - I realize that a little self-flagellation is in order. As religious in spirit as Shoshani may be, it transpires, she is otherwise as secular in observance and appearance as the next Israeli. "I simply love children," explains the former English teacher, a speech therapist by profession, who took up her current post two and a half years ago. Clearly used to being prejudged and pigeon-holed, she appears more amused than offended by my surprise at her not fitting into the mold I cast for her. Indeed, her whole manner is as sunny as the decor of her headquarters, each room of which is painted in a different pastel color, providing the look and feel of a nursery. "And I want all women to know that whatever their financial or familial situation when they get pregnant, they have more than one option." Giving birth, Shoshani asserts while giving me a tour of the premises, is the one choice many women don't even consider when they find themselves unexpectedly expecting. This, she says, showing me a massive walk-in closet lined from floor to ceiling with diapers, clothes and other baby paraphernalia, has had two results: approximately 20,000 legal abortions carried out in this country per year (as well as at least that number of illegal ones), and thousands of Israeli couples seeking to adopt infants abroad. But statistics do not seem to be Shoshani's focus, in spite of her mentioning demography in this context, as well. "What I wish with all my heart is that people would believe that the life inside them is valuable," she says wistfully, with a kind of somber sadness. "Look, before there were ultrasound machines, you couldn't see inside the womb. In 1972, that changed. Since then, how can anybody say it's not life when you can actually see the baby? At 10 weeks, the baby has feet and fingernails, for example. I mean, this is not merely a bunch of cells." Nor does the letter of the law (spelled out later in the interview) pretend to be at the root of her crusade, which, among other activities, involves her handing out flyers at the Central Bus Station every Sunday morning. "That's when there are thousands of soldiers to reach, 2.4 percent of whom get pregnant during their army service," she maintains, claiming that the IDF "provides two free abortions per female soldier, when it should be handing out contraceptives instead." (When asked about this, the IDF Spokesman's Office responded - in English - as follows: "The Law of Security Service dictates that pregnant women are not eligible for mandatory service. If a soldier becomes pregnant and requests an abortion, each case is examined separately by a social worker who deals with this specific issue in the IDF. Since the IDF provides soldiers with health coverage, abortions are therefore dealt with accordingly. Treatment options are brought to the awareness of soldiers and their commanders within the framework of the Women's Health Guidelines which are posted throughout the various units and bases of the IDF.") It is here that she talks to passers-by, offering information, and using a model of a uterus to illustrate to anyone who's interested what a baby looks like at every stage of its womb life. This, she admits, gets some women pretty perturbed. Others call out, "Kol hakavod" (good for you). A few actively seek her out and follow up. Though she says her organization is far from militant - "We are here to educate and help, not put up a fight" - she nevertheless sees no good reason for abortion, not even in rape cases or when a birth defect is detected in utero. "I have never yet had a woman come to me and say she was sorry she had her baby," Shoshani insists. "Never." When and why was Be'ad Chaim established? It began in the 1980s, when a group from the United States visiting Israel discovered the high number of abortions being carried out here. But the organization didn't grow much until recently. When and why did you join it? I've been with the organization for two and a half years. I felt the need to help the women. A mother who aborts her child ends up being heart-broken. Typically, she's relieved at first, and then afterward she suffers from depression, bad dreams, etc. One could argue that depression and bad dreams are also symptomatic of unwanted pregnancies - certainly in rape or incest cases, but also in cases of underage girls or perimenopausal women. We've had several 15 year olds who have kept their babies, and it's hard. Typically, these girls have mothers who themselves are single parents, and they are unconsciously imitating or recreating their parents' past. But even girls like that are able to make it if they have some kind of support system - which is exactly what we try to be. Of course, it especially helps if their parents and friends help them. But, even in cases where pregnancy was the result of a rape - which, by the way, are less than 1 percent of the total - there are women who decide to keep their babies anyway. Why? Because when you're raped, you feel like your life is destroyed. Then, you ask yourself: "Am I going to destroy someone else's life now? Or am I going to choose to overcome the suffering, the pain and the destruction that my life has had, and give somebody else life?" You are a secular Jew originally from the United States, which makes your position on abortion unusual. One of the main reasons that American Jews tend to be affiliated with the Democratic Party is their strong support for abortion (what they call "pro-choice"), in spite of the fact that they constitute a very low percentage of the women actually having abortions. Secondly, you sound almost Christian, in the sense that even Halacha is not as stringent on the definition of when life begins. In fact, newborn babies are neither given names nor Jewish burials if they die within the first week of their lives. That's true, but you know, when I'm on the street handing out flyers, many religious people tell me, "Kol hakavod." The Jewish position is that it's not a human being until the head comes out, but it is a potential life. And, as I've read in the commentaries of many rabbis, we don't have the right to destroy a potential life. As for my being unusual in my beliefs, when I was a child, my father - who is a liberal and a Democrat - told me, "If you get pregnant, don't have an abortion." I never really knew why he said that, but I think it's because he had a respect for life. I don't think it was so much a matter of religion as it was that. Look, before there were ultrasound machines, you couldn't see inside the womb. In 1972, that changed. Since then, how can anybody say it's not life when you can actually see the baby? At 10 weeks, the baby has feet and fingernails, for example. I mean, this is not merely a bunch of cells... On the other hand, you also see defects that you couldn't see before. That's true. What do you say to a woman who doesn't feel up to spending the rest of her life caring for a child with some kind of disability? Several things. One is that many women have been misdiagnosed, because their ultrasounds weren't correct. One of my dear friends was about to have an abortion because her doctor had told her her baby had no brain. While she was lying on the table, a nurse ran in and told the doctor to hold up on the procedure, because it turned out my friend had a blood-clotting problem. At this, my friend jumped up from the table and said, "This is from God; I'm not going to touch my baby, after all." Well, her child is fine. There are many such stories. Now let's go to the other kind of case - one in which there actually is a problem with the baby. But then I ask: "Who are we to decide whether or not that baby with that defect has a right to life? What defect has the right to life and what defect does not?" Furthermore, people who have handicapped children say they would never have aborted them. A third point has to do with motive. Hitler began abortions in Germany when he went to clean out the psychiatric hospitals. He said: "These people don't have a right to life. We're going to abort all their babies." Then there's Margaret Sanger [the founder of the American Birth Control League, which evolved into Planned Parenthood in the 1960s]. Where did she go to set up clinics? To poor neighborhoods. Why? Well, she said that she was helping poor women not have too many children, but what I think she was doing was trying to "clean up" America by ridding it of its poverty-stricken population. Planned Parenthood's function was not only to perform abortions. It was also to educate about and encourage birth control. Are you against birth control? No, of course not. But Sanger opened those clinics to give women abortions. She was saying, "Your babies have less right to live than the more affluent ones." What about women whose boyfriends or husbands demand they have abortions and threaten to leave, particularly when they do not want to face having a disabled child? I don't know how a woman can choose a marriage or a relationship over a child's life, especially when she believes she has a baby in her womb. What do you mean "when she believes she has a baby in her womb"? You know, when a woman wants to get pregnant and succeeds, she says: "Oh wow, I have a baby inside me." Whereas, women who don't want to be pregnant refer to it as a fetus. Now, of course many women who get pregnant unexpectedly are deeply troubled. It's a scary, traumatic thing to be pregnant when you're single; when you're in the army; when you're 40; when your situation doesn't make it easy and normal. But women grow into their situations. Life isn't static. It changes; it grows. People's situations change, and I have never yet had a woman come to me and say she was sorry she had her baby. Never. They hold their new babies, cry for joy and thank us for having helped them. We counsel women who've had abortions, and even if they were 15 when they had one and now they're 40, they say they hadn't realized what it was going to do to them later. Those who now have children say, "How could I have aborted that other one?" Those who never had children say, "That was my chance to have a child and I lost it." What about mothers who persuade their underage daughters to have abortions? They're not thinking about how their daughters are going to feel later. Maybe they're thinking that their daughters are going to dump their babies on them to raise. Yes, and maybe they're right to think that. I'm not saying such things don't happen. But our choice is still whether we consider it a baby or a lump of cells. That's why we have an ultrasound machine - to hear the heartbeat; to see that there's a human being in there. In other words, it's a matter of size and location, not essence. Is this what you would tell one of your own daughters if she got pregnant before she was married? Absolutely. What about girls who would be ostracized by their communities - or, worse, murdered - for having a baby out of wedlock? We would find such a girl a place to go. Some such girls would choose to leave their communities altogether, by going away during their pregnancy with some excuse and giving up their baby for adoption. Those who want to keep their babies might choose to sever relations with their communities for good. What about a married woman who gets pregnant by a lover, which means that her child would be a mamzer [bastard] according to Jewish law? We recently had a client like that. I don't know whether she decided to tell her husband. None of these are easy cases, but almost always, once a mother holds her baby in her arms, she feels she made the right choice. According to Israeli law, any woman who wants an abortion has to go through a committee of medical and other professionals who judge her case to determine whether she is eligible. [The four conditions for eligibility stated in the 1980 amended law are: 1) the woman is under legal marrying age or over 40; 2) the pregnancy resulted from relations in violation of criminal law or incest or those out of wedlock; 3) the fetus is liable to to have a physical or mental defect; 4) continuation of the pregnancy is liable to endanger the life of the woman or to cause her physical or mental damage. In any case, no abortions may be performed without the consent of such a committee. A doctor who performs an abortion without this consent is committing a crime. ] If the committee approves her abortion, her health fund pays for it. Correct? Yes. But there are conditions, mainly age - if she's under 18 or over 40. Or if she's unwed. Or if an ultrasound reveals a handicap. Any handicap. And because Israel is the leader in prenatal detection, this means that it is relatively easy to find the slightest thing wrong. But Israel is also the leader in prenatal surgery, isn't it? Yes. Nevertheless, in most cases where a handicap is detected in utero, abortion is recommended. How many abortions are performed every year in this country? It's hard to give an exact figure, because there are no reliable numbers. We know that there are approximately 20,000 legal abortions per year. We assume that there are at least 40,000-50,000 abortions total. That adds up to about 2 million since the establishment of the state. Abortion used to be the method of birth control in Israel, as it was in Russia. I've spoken to women who had 13 abortions. Imagine the demographics if all those babies had lived. Do you hold demonstrations, like the right-to-life groups in the US? Do you file complaints against doctors who perform illegal abortions? No, we don't do that sort of thing. We are here to educate and help. To provide options, not put up a fight. I don't judge anybody who's had an abortion; I just want to let them know that we're giving them a choice. You know, that's the real definition of "pro-choice," not saying that abortion is the only option. When a girl calls us on one of our [seven] hot lines in the country and reaches one of our counselors, she will almost always say she wants an abortion; she doesn't know she has another choice. It's peculiar that a girl who wants an abortion would phone an organization that encourages carrying the pregnancy to term. Does that mean that these girls want to be talked out of it? Some of them might not realize who and what we are, because our flyers and ads read, "Are you pregnant? Do you need help?" So, they don't necessarily know what kind of help we're going to give them. Once a 19-year-old girl approached me when I was handing out flyers and asked how I could help her - what I could offer her if not an abortion. She was 10 weeks pregnant. I showed her how developed her baby was by then; how it already had all of its organs. She was in a difficult situation. She had run away from her husband. I helped her get set up in a home for women in a different city. Since then, she had the baby, returned to her husband and says she has a good marriage now. In fact, they just had their second child. Has none of the girls told you she was sorry for having gone through with the pregnancy? No. As a matter of fact, one of the girls, who had intended to give up her baby for adoption, changed her mind. This was a girl who was orphaned at a young age, and she said, "You know, all my life I've been alone, and I'm not going to be alone any more. I'll be able to be with my baby and love him - and he will be somebody who's going to love me back." I admit that her financial situation is not easy, but we are going to help her. Not only will we provide for the baby, but I'm hoping to help her get some education and move on with her life. Her son is now six months old and she's a good mother. Do you provide dulas? In Jerusalem we have a dula who accompanies the women through childbirth. And we provide a counselor for any woman who wants one. What about postpartum assistance? How do you help after the birth? We try to be with the women as much as we can. We visit them in the hospital. We are there right after the birth to provide the baby's room, stroller, bathtub, etc. Then we visit them monthly to bring diapers, and baby food to those mothers who are not nursing. During the first few months, we keep in phone touch with them, as well. We try to be as supportive as possible. Your organization must need a lot of money, if you provide baby rooms and diapers to all these women. We also provide free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, which is why we have people raising funds in America. Who are your donors? Primarily the Christian Zionists, who are pro-life and care about our demographics, which is why they want to help us. Do you consult with rabbis? No. But some of our clients do. And sometimes rabbis recommend abortion, depending on the case and depending on the rabbi. Would you forbid abortion under all circumstances? I wouldn't go that way. I don't like to use the word "forbid." What I wish with all my heart is that people would believe that the life inside them is valuable. I wish that pregnant women would say, "If I can't raise my baby, maybe someone else can." There are 5,000 people currently waiting to adopt a baby in this country. I want to be able to say to them, "Stop going to Guatemala and Romania and paying all this money to adopt a baby." But how can I, when there are so few babies available in Israel? This is why we recently launched an adoption promotion program called "Operation Moses" - because Moses was the first adopted child. So far we've attracted about 30 women. It saddens me when a pregnant woman to whom I show a model of a uterus in various stages of her baby's development says, "My life is more valuable than the baby's." I wish such women would see that their babies' lives also have value.