The US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade decision that guaranteed the constitutional right to an abortion sparked an immediate flow of reactions from the entire spectrum of Jewish organizations.
The fact that a draft of the decision was leaked a couple of months ago left those groups plenty of time to study the meaning and the possible implications of the move, leading many of them to take action even before the formal ruling was released last Friday.
Thus, a coalition of organizations held the “Jewish Rally for Abortion Justice” at Union Square outside Congress last month, and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) created the Jewish Fund for Abortion Access, in partnership with the National Abortion Federation.
But that’s just the beginning of plans from Jewish groups of various denominations and political alliances to fight the court decision.
“This effort connects real people who need abortions with the money they need to access care,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of NCJW. “One hundred percent of funds donated go to help people access abortions.”
The fund was launched on May 15 in time for the Jewish Rally For Abortion Justice, she said. “We’ve been planning this fund for over a year and consulted with many reproductive rights organizations in creating it. It was timed to launch and be in place for when Roe v. Wade was overturned so we could meet this moment as a Jewish community by helping people access abortions with dignity.”
In addition, said Katz, the group urges clergy across the community to join NCJW’s Rabbis for Repro campaign, to educate communities around the country that reproductive freedom is a Jewish value, an essential front in this fight.
“We will continue to fight until the right of all people to access the health care they need, regardless of who they are or where they live, is guaranteed by law,” said Katz.
Several liberal organizations decried the court decision and vowed to remain steadfast in supporting the right of people to make their own decisions about their bodies, lives, and futures. Rabbi Jill Jacobs, CEO of T’ruah, said reproductive freedom is a Jewish value, and that according to Jewish law, abortion is not only permitted in at least some circumstances, but even required if the life of the pregnant person is at risk.
The ruling “ignores the First Amendment right for Jews to practice their religion without government interference, and will also have life-threatening implications for millions of Americans, primarily low-income people of color, by giving states the power to revoke essential health care from nearly half the population,” said Jacobs. “We call on the Biden administration to take action where the Senate failed and to ensure equal access to abortion nationwide.”
In a statement, the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a constituent of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, pledged continued support for women seeking an abortion and those providing the service.
“We fully support those who have sought and are seeking abortion care and will continue to advocate for a world where they are able to do so safely, wherever they are, without fear of retribution,” it said.
“We pray for the safety and well-being of the abortion care providers and health care workers who will be forced to decide what they are willing to risk in order to serve their patients and communities in places where abortion is now illegal.”Womens Rabbinic Network
The court decision comes four months before the midterm elections, as President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted to 39% and as polls indicate a growing possibility of a “red wave” amid high inflation, high gas prices and fears of recession. Democrats hope the court ruling could change the Republicans’ momentum and that voters would see reproductive rights as a priority this coming election.
The Jewish Democratic Council of America said the overturning of Roe v. Wade was an affront to its Jewish and Democratic values, which it will seek to reverse at the ballot box.
“At JDCA, we’re providing Jewish voters with the chance to turn our outrage into action to defend our rights, including with community conversations,” the group said.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, on the other hand, has yet to issue any statement on the court’s decision.
What are Orthodox organizations saying?
The Orthodox Union stood by its statement from May, when a draft version of the decision was leaked, saying the umbrella group could neither “mourn or celebrate” the reversal of the 1973 ruling.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer, the Orthodox Union’s executive vice president, said in an interview with JTA that states excluding mental health from the abortion calculus, as Georgia does, would be a cause for concern.
“Absolutely, when there will be mental health issues that impact the life of the mother” abortion should be allowed, “and, yes, in that event, we would we would be concerned about that,” he said.
But he added that the court’s decision was an opportunity to consider the value of life in a number of spheres.
“You know, there are definitely concerns,” he said. “But there may also be an opportunity here to shift the discussion of life to a more responsible space.”
A number of Orthodox groups and leading figures argue that liberal Jewish groups overstate the protections Jewish law offers to pregnant women. These groups argue that state laws with exemptions considering the life of the mother are adequate and that abortion under Roe v. Wade, as was constituted, devalues life.
Agudath Israel of America, for example, issued a statement welcoming “this historic development.”
“We pray that the ruling will inspire all Americans to appreciate the moral magnitude of the abortion issue, and to embrace a culture that celebrates life,” the statement read.
Asked about the next steps ahead, Abba Cohen, vice president for government affairs at Agudath, told The Jerusalem Post that the group will continue working on the abortion issue on the legislative, legal and community fronts.
“Thus, as greater focus will be directed toward Congress and state legislatures, Agudath Israel’s offices in Washington and around the country will be active in monitoring existing and proposed federal and state legislation,” he said. “We will review laws for their efficacy in providing the protection fetal life deserves while working to ensure that, in the extraordinary circumstances where religious faith teaches that terminating pregnancy is indicated, a woman’s right to abortion be safeguarded.
“When and where necessary, as we have done in the past, we will also make our views known in federal and state courts when fetal protections and religious rights are being trampled upon or not being properly provided for in the law or its application,” said Cohen.
“Perhaps most importantly, we will also continue to clarify to the Jewish community and to others what Jewish law and tradition say regarding the complex issue of abortion,” he continued. “Tragically, many who purport to speak in the name of Judaism have failed to acknowledge the Torah’s emphasis on the sanctity of fetal life, leading them to insist upon abortion on demand and illegitimate bases for terminating pregnancies.”
THE DECISION also led several organizations that usually do not speak out about the issue to make an exception.
“The issue of reproductive rights is of great importance,” the Jewish Federations of North America said on Thursday. “We are supporting our Federations across the system and providing them with analysis of the decision and its repercussions, as well as informational resources to help them respond to this monumental case... We know this decision will have a tremendous impact on our communities. We pledge to continue our decades-long history of providing support and resources to our health and human service agencies, to ensure the well-being and health of all women.”
Hillel International reacted by saying that last Friday was “a painful and distressing day for many Americans and Jewish students across the country who believe that each American should have the right to make personal decisions about pregnancy and abortion in a way that is informed by their own beliefs, values and needs.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to eliminate the constitutional right to abortion is at odds with Jewish law and practice, which prioritizes the life of the pregnant person,” it said. “Our tradition teaches that our most sacred obligation is the preservation of human life, and we’re dismayed that this ruling will make it more challenging to fulfill that promise for the students, professionals and community members we serve.... In the weeks and months ahead, we will continue to focus on providing resources to our students and professionals to support their health and well-being, especially those in states where the ruling has an immediate impact.”
The American Jewish Committee also expressed profound disappointment following the decision, saying it has long opposed government interference in a woman’s right to autonomy over her body and access to medical procedures that affect her own life and her ability – and decision – to bear children.
“In discarding a half-century of legal precedent, the court has charted a dangerous course,” AJC said, pointing to possible future legal challenges: “We must guard against future efforts to undermine other hard-fought civil liberties, including contraception and same-sex marriage. The court has sent an ominous signal that we cannot take these freedoms for granted.”
The American Jewish Congress said that for more than 50 years, constitutional protections afforded by Roe v. Wade have provided a harbor for women to exercise safe access to abortion.
“Regrettably, that harbor is no more – and the court’s ruling will undoubtedly lead to the criminalization of women who seek an abortion, the health care providers who bravely care for these patients, and lead to an increase in dangerous measures by women in underserved and at-risk communities.
“While we respect the court’s constitutional authority to interpret the law as they see fit, the American Jewish Congress firmly disagrees that this decision represents the best course for the country,” the American Jewish Congress added.
JTA contributed to this report. •