Baby Bargain

Israel's Secular-Religious Abortion Compromise

Abortion is a surprisingly uncontroversial topic in Israeli politics.

Next weekend, religious Jews around the world will read the weekly Torah portion of Shemot (Exodus) which describes the enslavement of the Children of Israel in Egypt, the birth of Moses and his mission of liberation.

One of its pivotal episodes is the showdown between Pharaoh and two Hebrew midwives, Shifra and Puah, who refuse his orders to murder every male child at birth. For obvious, if perhaps rather manipulative reasons, this particular Shabbat is the start of annual fundraising drives for Israel’s Orthodox anti-abortion groups.

Yet despite their best attempts, and the fact the country’s religious right are not shy of trying to impose their views on the rest of the population, abortion is a topic which remains persistently undebated in Israel.

In many ways it’s surprising that this has not become the touchstone issue in Israel that is has in America. Both countries see an ongoing culture war between secular liberalism and religion; Israel, in addition, has an emotional investment in the production of Jewish children, a legacy of both the Holocaust and underlying demographic paranoia.

But while the ultra-Orthodox will turn out in their hundreds to protest roads being opened to traffic on Shabbat, there are no angry scenes outside abortion clinics with angry demonstrators brandishing gruesome placards. Unlike in the US, the issue has never featured in political campaigning.

One reason is that Jewish law is more nuanced on the subject of abortion than the Christian doctrine which holds that life begins at the moment of conception. For the early Jewish sages, during the first 40 days of gestation, the fetus was nothing more than “mere fluid.” A fetus only truly became a person, with all the attendant rights that brings, at birth.

Even now, the most stringent interpretation of halakha will still deem abortion permissible in order to save the mother from serious harm or death.

That’s not to say that the Jewish establishment is supportive of a woman’s right to choose. The chief rabbinate is explicitly opposed to abortion, and indeed it remains illegal in Israel, at least in theory, with a potential penalty of five years in prison.

Terminations first need to be approved by a special committee of two doctors and a social worker, which must include at least one woman, and fulfill a set of criteria. In practice, these committees approve virtually every case they deal with, and private doctors who carry out the procedures outside the state system are never prosecuted.

“According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, about 19,000 women have abortions [via the state committees] each year, half of them because of birth defects or a major risk to the mother,” says Roni Piso, of the Isha l’Isha [Woman to Woman] organisation. But she notes this is far from the full picture. “There are many more women who have private abortions, and we don’t have any data about this at all. And there are woman who are afraid to approach the committees in the first place because they fear they are going to be turned down.”

In the US, the pro-life movement grew in the wake of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which largely removed barriers to abortion in the third trimester in most US states, and the issue still takes a central position in US discourse (most US Jews support the right to abortion in one form or another).

It features in presidential races and supreme court nominations and affects foreign policy. Pro-life figures from the US occasionally try to bring their fight to Israel, perhaps thinking they can build common cause with the religious right.

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But Israeli society stubbornly refuses to take the bait.

There is the occasional flurry in parliament: MK Nissim Ze’ev, from the religious Shas party, has repeatedly put forward an amendment that would prevent almost all abortions after 22 weeks, while Zahava Galon, from the left-wing Meretz party, similarly drafts bills to remove current restrictions. Both their attempts inevitably fail.

And Israel’s anti-abortion movement, such as it is, stays away from political campaigning, preferring a more emotive approach. Best-known is the Efrat organisation, founded, according to its website, in memory of the 1.5 million Jewish children killed in the Holocaust.

Efrat president Dr. Eli Schussheim makes no bones about his agenda. “Saving our children is the answer to those who wish to destroy all Jews; adults, children and babies, born and unborn,” he says in a statement. “By assisting women we are doing our part to increase the Jewish population in Israel.”

(This view echoes that of Israel’s founding father, the hugely secular David Ben Gurion, who railed against the pre-state yishuv’s high rates of abortion as a demographic calamity).

However, unlike its American counterparts, Efrat doesn’t function as a lobby group or rally supporters for public demonstrations.

“Rather than staging protests outside hospitals, they work more subtly, by for example, developing relationships with the social workers who work on or with the committees in the hope that they will refer pregnant women seeking abortions to them for support and guidance,” says Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld, a Visiting Scholar at SOAS, University of London who is conducting research on the politics of reproduction in Israel.

Efrat denies doing more than supporting women by supplying them with all their baby essentials for a year if they go ahead with the pregnancy; others accuse them of more manipulative tactics.

Last year, 18-year-old Raz Attias was shot dead by police as he held a gun to his girlfriend’s head. The pair had agreed to a suicide pact after Attias's girlfriend, 17, fell pregnant. The girl’s family later said that she had been “brainwashed” by Efrat into keeping the baby, although the organization insisted they had had no contact with her.

Such incidents raise headlines in Israel, but it seems neither side of the debate want to force the issue too far. Both have too much to lose.

There’s an unspoken agreement, says Steinfeld, “between Haredim and secular in Israel whereby the secular accept the less-than-ideal legal status of abortion, and don't push for further liberalization, in return for the Haredim not seeking to further restrict legal access. “Secular Israelis are very wary of opening the abortion debate for fear of a religious backlash that could further restrict women's legal access.”

As in many other issues in Israel―especially when it comes to secular-religious divisions―maintaining the status quo just seems safer in the end.