October 10, 2002
Jewish Women Fight for Choice
Fran Teller of the National Council of Jewish Women known as "Madame NCJW," is one of the many Jewish women who keep a vigilant watch over reproductive freedoms in the United States. She has been active on the issue even before the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that gave women the right to chose an abortion -- and she is concerned.
"Last year," Teller said, "we took a whole busload of [NCJW] women over to the Planned Parenthood center to take a tour, and the sad thing is that there were certain areas you couldn't get into because they're under lock and key -- the intake centers have bars in front of them -- so you know these are dangerous times. We've got some people, for whatever reason, doing horrible things, for what they think are good causes."
"Back in the early '70s even then there was the [anti-abortion, anti-choice] opposition," Teller continued, "but now the opposition has become even more sophisticated, even more effective as the years have gone on, and they also have become a strong political force."
Jewish women such as Teller have long been involved in the fight for reproductive rights. However, recent legislation has raised their concern.
Among the actions that have caused alarm and mobilized organizations like Planned Parenthood and Jewish women's groups, such as NCJW, are: increased prenatal funding for fetuses, permission to health entities to decline abortion services and the withdrawal of $34 million from the U.N. Population Fund that was earmarked earlier for women's reproductive health-care services around the world.
The NCJW was one of state Sen. Sheila Kuehl's (D-Santa Monica) staunchest supporters of a recent bill she authored protecting California women's right to chose. Last month, Gov. Gray Davis signed her bill, the Reproductive Privacy Act (SB 1301). The new law ensures California women the right to a safe and legal abortion, regardless of what happens at the national level.
To support the bill, the NCJW used a network of members in letter-writing, phone and e-mail campaigns to get the word out to legislators.
"We promote any stance that supports the right to choose," said Harriet Rothenberg of Long Beach, NCJW's state public affairs chairwoman. "Each NCJW section has a public affairs committee that I can talk to to mobilize the entire membership toward a campaign. California is very fortunate in having a strong reproductive rights stance ... but we have to be continually watchful."
Rothenberg also serves as the West Coast point person for NCJW's BenchMark Campaign to Save Roe, which was launched last January by the national office in Washington, D.C.
"We are careful to see that judges who are appointed to the Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court are fair-minded, open-minded," Rothenberg said. "We take a careful look at nominations ... through access to records, publications, decisions they made. These are available on the Internet, but we take the time to look at them, and then spread the word."
"The public pays very little attention to the comings and goings of the federal appeals courts," wrote Bob Herbert in an opinion piece in The New York Times last month, "but whoever runs these courts are crucial arbiters and shapers of the American way of life."
To illustrate the point, Herbert noted that seven of the 13 circuit courts are controlled by Republican appointees, and wrote that the ratio can, and most likely will, change in the next few years.
Since taking office, President Bush has overwhelmingly favored conservative, anti-choice nominees to the federal courts, such as his most recent choices, Michael McConnell and Miguel Estrada. Choice advocates predict that a conservative takeover of the Supreme Court is not far behind.
Joyce Schoor, the young and enthusiastic founder and president of WRRAP (Women's Reproductive Rights Assistance Project), worries that it will take just one Supreme Court justice appointment to overturn Roe vs. Wade. Currently, three justices favor abortion, three oppose it and three are in the middle on the issue.
WRRAP, which was started by NCJW in Los Angeles in 1991 but now operates independently, gives money to poor women for abortions. At a fundraising event in Hollywood last month, the organization presented author-feminist Gloria Steinem and the film, "Rain Without Thunder," to draw attention to the vulnerable state of women's reproductive freedom in the United States today.
"It's not that the majority doesn't support choice -- there is a huge majority opinion of 70 percent in this country," said Steinem, representing Voters for Choice, a nonpartisan organization she helped found that educates the public on pro-choice candidates. "It's that the anti-choice [bloc] votes 90 percent of their membership, while the pro-choice [bloc] votes 15 to 20 percent."
For Teller and Jews who support choice, the real tragedy is what happened at a time in our history when women sought back-alley abortions.
Teller remembers in the early '70s, when she first became interested in the issue of women's reproductive rights, she learned that the major cause of death among women of childbearing age was the result of botched abortions. A few months ago, when she was reading a Planned Parenthood report, she found that 17 percent of women died due to unsafe abortions before Roe vs. Wade.
"I never had the figure. I only got it the other day, but I knew back then that it was an overwhelming thing, and I thought that in a civilized society, this just doesn't make sense."