In 1979, I moved from the United States to Israel, where I discovered that unlike in America, reproductive choice in Israel was by and large not an issue—not religiously, politically or socially.
As the director of the Israel Office for the U.S.-based National Council of Jewish Women for the past 17 years, I was always grateful and surprised that with all the problems regarding women’s rights in Israel, the consensus on abortion was to leave well enough alone.
I’m hoping that is not about to change.
At the moment, birth control and abortion services are not only legal but, in most cases, abortion is covered by health plans with a small copay. Women serving in the Israeli army are entitled to free birth control and abortions. But last month, Nissim Zeev, a member of the Israeli Knesset from the Shas party (the Sephardic religious party) submitted legislation seeking to limit abortions after the 22nd week of pregnancy.
Zeev claims that since technology now allows life outside the womb at 22 weeks, pregnancy termination after that is tantamount to “murder”—a word he actually used. He went on to argue that women are encouraged to end their pregnancies for social reasons, and they later regret their abortions and suffer depression because of them.
In effect, Zeev is following in the footsteps of the former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, who two years ago attacked the official committees that by law approve abortions. Eliyahu charged that “a million children have been cut down alive since the state [of Israel] was created.”
Luckily, the government opposes Zeev’s proposal. Most political analysts agree it was merely a ploy to draw attention away from issues such as drafting haredi Orthodox men into the Israeli army and ending gender segregation, both of which have roiled the waters between the haredi Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.
In Israel, all requests for a government-subsidized abortion through one’s health plan are reviewed by a committee that includes a family doctor, a gynecologist and a social worker. Knesset member Zahava Galon, who heads the left-of-center Meretz party, has drafted bills several times to eliminate all such committees—an idea the government also opposes and habitually keeps bottled up in committee.
Galon describes attitudes toward abortion as ranging from “indifference, to resistance, to a desire to control the right of a woman and her wish to decide her reproductive rights.” These attitudes, she says, “allow the state to continue to define the decision-making process on the termination of pregnancy.”
Such views are also contested in the United States, where despite President Obama’s support for abortion rights, congressional opponents succeeded in severely limiting government-funded abortions covered by the new national health reform law. Since the 2010 election, states have enacted a record number of laws intended to restrict or even eliminate access to abortion.
While I appreciate Galon’s desire to make abortion even more accessible to all woman in Israel by doing away with the committee that reviews requests for a government-subsidized abortion, it is still the case that with committee approval, every Israeli’s health plan covers abortion for most women between the ages of 18 and 42 for a small copay, and for free for women outside that age range. That is a stark contrast to the situation in the United States.
Israeli law, which incorporates halachah, or Jewish law, makes abortion legal and justified in most cases. The U.S. pro-choice camp would love to have such liberal laws on the books.
When I made aliyah, it seemed birth control and abortion rights were a done deal in the United States. I hope that remains the case despite ongoing attacks there. And for Israel, my wish is that Zeev and his allies find something else to oppose and leave women’s reproductive rights at least as strong as they were when I arrived here more than three decades ago.
Shari Eshet is director of the National Council of Jewish Women’s Israel office.