April 22, 2004
Pro-Life, Pro Choice, Pro-Healing
Both sides are falling short of the Jewish ideal.
I was a teenage pro-choice fanatic.
My car's license plate read CHOICE 8. Apparently, I shared my enthusiasm with at least seven other people in Illinois. But life's wisdom comes slowly. Once, when a neighbor three times my age told me she agreed that abortion should be legal, I didn't miss a beat: "I can't believe those pro-lifers. It's not even a baby! It's a blob of tissue that is totally dependent on the woman's body."
I will never forget the pain in her eyes when she responded quietly, "Lamelle, I was pregnant once and I had a miscarriage. And let me tell you, it was a baby."
I knew immediately that I had made a dreadful mistake, but it took me 10 years to figure out what it was: I had confused being pro-choice with being hostile toward pregnancy. The kind of woman that I was busy fighting for did not want to be pregnant. I wanted to protect her right to make decisions about her body. I hadn't yet realized that caring about women in this way and caring about unborn babies were not mutually exclusive.
My understanding began to evolve in college, when I chose abortion as the topic for my senior thesis. As I compared the ways in which pro-choice and pro-life advocates approach the issue, I was troubled. Pro-life "crisis pregnancy centers" appeal to women facing unplanned pregnancies, offering help and support (often masking their pro-life stance). But clinics offering abortion services as part of a gamut of reproductive health care fail to market their help and support as aggressively as their pro-life counterparts. Why? I began to realize that the political climate had backed pro-choicers against a wall: They were so busy defending the right to choose, protecting clinics besieged by protesters and the occasional murderous pro-lifer, that little space was left on the agenda for responding to the trauma of unplanned pregnancy.
I began to feel alienated from the mainstream pro-choice movement, as much as I endorsed its political goals. I began to wonder whether I needed a new framework for understanding the issue.
That framework came a few years later, after I experienced my own early pregnancy loss.
At six weeks, the embryo that left my body was a tiny "blob of tissue," the phrase I had once used when debating pro-lifers. But this little one was so much more -- I had talked to it, imagined it growing, developing, moving, being born. I had loved it as someone separate from and yet a part of me. Its untimely exit flooded me with shock, disbelief, bitterness and anger. I was angry with my body, angry with God and had never felt so alone. I'd barely had time to revel in being pregnant. How could it be over? Was this all a bad dream?
Slowly, the numbness receded. I immersed myself in the outpouring of love I received from my husband and close friends. A few friends created a healing circle; we sat in candlelight one evening as I shared my pain and received their blessings and prayers for healing. The anger I had directed at my body melted away, and I was left with gratitude -- my body had been taking care of me, after all; the embryo I had briefly hosted would never have developed into a healthy baby. The anger I had directed at God gave way to an understanding that God shared my grief.
The bitter edge softened each day. My mother-in-law cried with me on the phone. Precious friends left flowers and a comforting note, while others brought food. I went to the mikvah. I noticed that talking about the miscarriage was therapeutic. As I talked with more women, a theme emerged: Many, many women have early miscarriages, but very few choose to talk about it. When it happens, we feel alone and afraid, despite the fact that early miscarriage is often a totally normal part of reproduction.
I realized that my own initial reluctance to talk about my experience stemmed from my discomfort with the words I was choosing to describe it. I found myself reclaiming words that I had previously labeled as part of the pro-life lexicon. Was the "life" that had been growing inside me a "baby?" Could I have really become so attached so quickly? Now in her 70s, my aunt was one who shared her own miscarriage story with me. At the end of our phone call, her parting words were, "I'm so sorry about the baby."
Those simple words resonated, and I felt my heart beginning to mend. Of course, there are still moments of pain -- I'm told that getting pregnant again is the only remedy for that, and I hope to find out.
Perhaps the pro-choice movement is reluctant to break the language barrier and use pro-life words out of fear that the opposition will turn their words against them. Perhaps they struggle with simplifying a complex issue into soundbites and slogans. But I am tired of slogans, and I am tired of ceding the language of life to those who want to outlaw abortion. Pro-life slogans fall flat in the face of a 20-year-old California woman who recently bled to death from a botched abortion because she was too ashamed to ask for help. Pro-choice slogans feel hollow at the bedside of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit where I volunteer. Many of the babies are but a few days older than fetuses that are routinely aborted. Moving beyond slogans, I am searching for alternative ways to think about abortion that encompass both my experiences as an activist and as a mom-to-be.
Where do we turn in order to make sense of this miserably complex issue? For me, any moral question -- and abortion surely is a moral question -- is by its very nature a religious question. So I have turned to Judaism for an answer.
When delving into the abortion issue in a Jewish context, many of us first examine traditional halachic (legal) sources. We may note that within the framework of Jewish law, abortion to save the life of a woman is not only permissible, but required. While anything but monolithic (this is Judaism, after all!), modern rabbinic decisions emphasize the psychological as well as the physical aspects of the decision.
But there is more to the abortion question than whether it is legal according to Jewish law or the laws of the United States. The abortion issue rests at the fulcrum of the balance between life and death, situated deep within the sacred space of the womb. Looking at abortion through a Jewish lens requires that we probe our tradition's fundamental orientation toward matters of life and death. As we probe, our guiding principle is compassion, rachamim, linguistically linked to the word for womb, rechem.
In the broadest sense, it is clear that Judaism is a life-loving religion. We are virtually obsessed with affirming the sanctity of life. Our sages were passionate about saving lives: The Talmud says in tractate Sanhedrin that saving one life is the equivalent of saving the entire world. Our holiday calendar celebrates the life's renewal, from the opportunity for repentance and rebirth during the Days of Awe to the lights of Chanukah in the dark of winter to the redemptive narrative of Pesach. Our historical narrative, from the Exodus from Egypt to the Shoah to the challenges faced by the State of Israel today, is a story of our love for life and our grief and outrage at the destruction of the innocent.
As Jews, then, we have cause for ambivalence when it comes to elective abortion. We who celebrate pregnancy and the beginning of life with so much joy cannot hold that it is trivial to end a pregnancy. In a 1995 article in the New Republic, Naomi Wolf (who is both Jewish and pro-choice) wrote that we often fail to acknowledge "the death of the fetus" during an abortion. Many women who choose abortion are not given support to grieve. It is assumed that there is no loss to mourn. Wolf says: "Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. But it is never right or necessary to minimize the value of the lives involved or the sacrifice incurred in letting them go."
In other words, by steering clear of the meaning of the act itself and focusing exclusively on concepts like the "freedom to choose," the mainstream pro-choice movement falls short of the Jewish ideal. Our life-loving religious tradition understands that the cycle of life is punctuated by joys and sorrows, by exhilaration and grief. We care as much about comforting the mourner as we do about celebrating with the bride and groom. Judaism recognizes the wholeness of life and gives us the tools to embrace it while accepting its challenging moments. To envision abortion in a Jewish context is to understand abortion as a heartbreaking choice.
Our next step is to figure out how to respond to heartbreak with rachamim. No one wants to experience an unwanted pregnancy. No one delights in ending fetal life. Acknowledging that many women (though perhaps not all) experience abortion as a heartbreaking choice spurs us to validate the complexity of a woman's experience and implores us to aid in her healing. Most important, Judaism offers a loving God, HaRachaman, to console her.
A number of resources have emerged for women and men who want to explore Jewish perspectives on fetal death, including abortion and miscarriage. "Seeds of Sorrow, Tears of Hope" by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is an invaluable resource for anyone struggling with miscarriage and infertility. Many of its suggested new rituals for healing can be adapted for abortion, as well. Fortunately, "Talking to God" by Rabbi Naomi Levy provides a model of a tender prayer to be said following an abortion.
Perhaps the most powerful (and underutilized) source of healing for Jewish women is the mikvah. Those of us who visit the mikvah on a monthly basis can attest to its healing nature. The laws of niddah require abstinence from sexual relations during one's period and for seven days after, followed by immersion in the mikvah. Observant feminists have long theorized that the origin of this mitzvah may be connected with the loss of potential life that occurs with each menstrual cycle. If so, this practice, in which we are commanded to ritually enact rebirth and renewal, may be Judaism's most overt commentary on pregnancy loss or termination. For those who have chosen abortion -- as well as for those who have experienced childbirth, miscarriage or, simply, the loss of the chance to create a new life this month -- the living waters of the mikvah, symbolizing the womb of God, are ready and waiting.
Dr. Rachel Remen writes that each person's healing process is as different as a fingerprint. An embryo that has been in a womb for three weeks can be the bearer of infinite promise and possibility or it can be just another heavy period. One woman's mind-numbing loss is the answer to another woman's prayers. Because the realm of reproductive health is so intensely personal and case specific, we must protect the legality of abortion while striving to prevent unwanted pregnancies. (Judaism's emphasis on sexual relations in the context of marriage provides some guidance on the latter point!)
The future of access to safe and legal abortion in the United States is far from certain. Who wants to return to the bad old days when abortion was a crime and women died from back-alley and self-induced abortions? On April 25, thousands will converge on Washington, D.C., for the March for Women's Lives. They will call for protecting the legality of abortion here in the United States and decry U.S. policies that inhibit women's access to basic reproductive care (including prenatal care) in countries receiving U.S. foreign aid. Hopefully, the March will raise awareness of the direness of the current political climate surrounding women's reproductive rights.
As Jews, many of us find ourselves straddling the line: We believe that abortion should be legal, but we also know it to be a complex moral issue that belies simple answers. But all of us -- even those Jews who may self-define as emphatically pro-choice or pro-life -- should strive to accept the ambiguity and the uncertainty inherent in the abortion issue. Most important, as we raise our voices about the legality of abortion, we must reach out to those who make this heartbreaking choice, offering our rachamim and prayers for healing.
Lamelle Ryman is completing post-baccalaureate studies in science with the goal of one day becoming an ob/gyn-midwife.