Redefining 'pro-choice'

Efforts by Efrat nonprofit group to prevent ‘unnecessary abortions’ have thrust the previously taboo issue to forefront of public consciousness.

Dr. Schussheim_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Schussheim_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It’s been nearly 10 years since Hila Zeharia had her first abortion, but the 27-year-old, now a mother of three, says she remembers the pain and emotional suffering as though it were yesterday.
“I was 16 years old when I found out I was pregnant, and it was a complete shock,” recalls Zeharia, whose children range in age from seven to 11 months. “I had so much pressure on me, social pressure and pressure from my family; I was not really given a choice.”
She describes how family members took her to a clinic and how she was given a pill to end the pregnancy.
“I was six weeks pregnant, and although the pills are 95 percent successful, in my situation they did not work,” continues Zeharia, who went on to have a termination a month later.
“It was a really hard time,” she describes. “I was 16, in 10th grade, and I just gave up. I was so confused, completely lost, and there was no one to help me. I felt as though I was completely alone.
“When a woman has an abortion, she thinks that her life afterward will be better without children, but there is no one to help her deal with the emotional problems,” says Zeharia, adding, “When I was pregnant, everyone was very supportive at first, but as soon it was over, everyone was gone.”
A second abortion when she was 18 was equally traumatic, she says.
“It was so easy to get both abortions. Our country assists women with abortions, but does not help them deal with the emotional problems afterward,” she notes.
“Twice a year I fast for the children that I lost, and I hope that one day their souls will be able to forgive me,” says Zeharia, who in the decade since has become a staunch antiabortion advocate and a spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization Efrat, which helps to prevent “unnecessary abortions.”
While Zeharia’s stance on the abortion debate is clear – “I want to do everything I can now to make sure that others do not go through an abortion or experience what I went through,” she says – discussion over allowing women to terminate their pregnancies if they so choose is a subject that is surprisingly mute in the State of Israel.
Unlike in other countries where religion is a central facet of society, abortions are relatively easy to obtain here, with a medical review committee in most hospitals approving most women’s requests to terminate; yet compared to Western democracies, there are no really vocal pro-choice or pro-life lobbies.
Over the last few months, however – since Efrat’s attempts to raise awareness of its work were ultimately blocked by the Israel Broadcasting Authority and Second Authority of Television and Radio following a wave of complaints from the public that the NGO prevented women from making their own personal choices – the issue has been thrust to the forefront of public consciousness.
“I’ve known this group for many years, and they are very pushy. Most of the volunteers are religious women, and they tell other women what to do,” says Rina Bar-Tal, chair of the Israel Women’s Network (IWN), who calls Efrat’s work a “catastrophe” and likens their methods to the vigorous proselytizing of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“This organization represents an extreme minority and not the religious public in general,” continues Bar-Tal, a member of a Health Ministry committee for women’s health issues who meets regularly with representatives from the haredi community.
“There are big changes among religious people on this issue,” she continues. “Until recently, they were not so involved in the debate, but more and more women are doing ultrasounds [that detect abnormalities in the fetus] and more than ever before are getting permission to abort their babies. They all know how hard it is to raise a child with serious medical problems and that it can be a strain on the family. This is an amazing development that no one really talks about.”
According to the most recent data on abortions from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), some 20,000 women applied for a legal termination in Israel in 2008, and 98.6 percent were approved. The figures from last year showed that 52% of the women who applied for an abortion did so because they had conceived out of wedlock or were pregnant from an illicit relationship; 18.8% were experiencing a complication with the fetus; 18.5% of the pregnancies were endangering the mother’s life; and 10.7% were due to the age of the mother.
SITTING IN his Jerusalem office, not far from the haredi neighborhood of Givat Shaul, Dr. Eli Schussheim, founder and voluntary director of Efrat, which in recent years has helped some 3,500-4,000 women avoid “unnecessary abortions,” discounts the official reasons given for women seeking to end their pregnancies and says the issue is much simpler than it appears.
“There are two main reasons women consider having abortions, and these have not changed in the 30 years since I started with Efrat,” he says. “First, there is a lack of information. The woman knows she is pregnant, but she does not know that in the first weeks of pregnancy she has a living human being inside her. If this is not highlighted, then she does not realize what she is doing.”
The second reason, says Schussheim, a veteran immigrant from Argentina who moved here in the mid-’60s, is “economic pressures.”
“She has debts and she feels there is no one that can help her,” continues Schussheim, who served as the parliamentary doctor during the Sixth Knesset.
“Today’s economic pressures are greater than ever before.”
Efrat, explains Schussheim, addresses both these issues with a stream of specially trained volunteers who provide information, and a packed Jerusalem warehouse that distributes diapers, baby formula and furniture – “everything she will need for the first year... from Eilat to Kiryat Shmona.”
“If the bank does not allow the woman a choice to keep her baby, then we will give her the choice,” he says proudly.
Emphasizing the word choice, Schussheim says it is this financial support that signifies his organization’s departure from the pro-life lobby in the US, which often uses heavy-handed tactics to make women feel guilty about aborting, and makes Efrat more akin to the pro-choice camp.
“We are pro-choice,” he insists, “but with one additional point – after the woman has received the correct information. Once she has information on what a fetus is, then she can decide.”
Despite criticism from women’s rights groups that Efrat does not have women’s interests at heart or that its volunteers are heavy on emotional manipulation and lighter on the information, Schussheim points to a copy of the printed guidelines on how volunteers should speak to those seeking advice on whether or not to keep their babies.
“If a volunteer adds something to this, then it has nothing to do with Efrat; we can’t monitor her every word,” he says.
Ruthy Tidhar, an experienced social worker who has been with Efrat for the past 10 years, also defends the organization’s activities by pointing out that “most of the pregnant women who come to us and are considering an abortion are still undecided about what to do.
That is why they are turning to us.”
She says that in 95% of the cases the women go on to give birth to what the organization proudly calls its "Efrat babies."
“For whatever reason that is not clear to me, there is a view that feminism is doing an abortion without even thinking too much about it,” points out the US-born Tidhar. “This is simply not good; as a social worker I have seen that the souls of most women go against [aborting a baby]. I can tell without end stories of women who have had abortions and regret it.”
Her goal, she continues, is to enable women to follow their hearts and make their own choices. “Everyone knows that if you look at your life choices, the really important decisions are made from the heart. That is what we do here; we help the woman to make the choice that her heart is telling her to.”
One woman helped by Efrat is 22-year-old Almog Bohadana. After an abortion at the age of 18, she fell into a deep, and at times psychotic, depression, with suicidal tendencies and a host of ghost pregnancies.
“The army helped me to get an abortion, but afterward I started having nightmares and I kept dreaming about babies,” says Bohadana, who later cut off contact with her family, blaming them for forcing her to abort the pregnancy.
After finishing her military service, having moved in with her boyfriend and still suffering from traumatic flashbacks, Bohadana contacted Efrat for assistance.
Not long afterward, she found out she was pregnant again, and this time, the organization helped her out, raising funds for her wedding and helping to support the baby.
“Now I have a child who will turn one next month,” says the Jerusalemite, who now also volunteers for Efrat.
“The feminist groups do not know what they are talking about when they criticize Efrat,” she asserts, adding that “the hospitals make it easy to get abortions and do not give out correct information on how abortions can affect a woman medically and make it harder for them to conceive again in the future.”
THE MEDICAL arguments notwithstanding, Dr. Yael Hashiloni-Dolev, a medical sociologist at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, says the main problem surrounding abortions in the Jewish state is that they are not granted “on demand.”
“Women have to stand before a committee and confess their sins or explain very intimate details about themselves to total strangers,” she says, adding, “Many times they have to lie in order to get the abortion. A married woman cannot get an abortion, and sometimes they have to say that they have had sex outside marriage just so they can have it done. It’s an infringement on reproductive autonomy, and it is very problematic.”
Hashiloni-Dolev calls the whole process a “ceremony of shame and guilt; you have to lie about your sexual relationships, talk about whether you used contraception or whether you were drunk and a whole host of different things that are really not to the point.”
The whole humiliating system that exists is more about the “politics of pragmatics” and is less about providing an ideal situation for women with unwanted pregnancies, says Hashiloni-Dolev. She warns, however, that too much discussion on the issue could “wake a sleeping giant” and ultimately see some of the more conservative religious sects pushing the issue backward, making it harder for women to get abortions.
“At the moment, no one checks what is happening in the abortion committees. It is really only rubber stamping because most involved are liberals – the doctors are liberals and the social workers are liberals. Of course, it does depend on which hospital you go to, but most know how to play the game,” she says. “The story here is very special. On one side, there is a preventive law; on the other side, the practice is liberal.”
One other issue that is of great concern here, says Hashiloni-Dolev, is that while in most Western liberal countries abortions can be carried out only up to 14 weeks into the pregnancy, in Israel abortions, if approved, are legal at any stage.
“The ideal would be abortions on demand at least for the first trimester,” she says. “But I don’t believe that we will ever have abortions on demand here.”
Rather, concludes Hashiloni-Dolev, the state should “stop wasting money on a medical committee and change the whole process to provide counseling, subsidized contraceptives and generally get more creative in a way that could possibly reconcile the religious parties and keep the liberals happy, too.”