Allowing Women To Choose

— by Rabbi Avi Shafran

Well-informed, they say, is well-prepared; and knowledge is power. An exception, though — at least in the judgment of some — seems to be when Jewish women in Israel are contemplating ending their pregnancies.

When an Israeli magazine announced it would bestow an award on a group called Efrat, “pro-choice” advocates (seldom have “scare quotes” been so appropriate) howled in outrage.

Efrat provides women with information about abortion, as well as financial support for mothers-to-be who are under economic pressure to terminate their pregnancies. The group’s detractors characterize it as preying on women at an emotionally vulnerable time.

More after the jump.
Efrat, however, does not parade with offensive placards in front of medical facilities like some American groups. Nor does it seek to shame women in any way. Its goal is simply to advance “a woman’s right to free choice,” by providing expectant women who want it with accurate information about medical matters and the development of the lives growing within them; it also offers needy such women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term things like food packages, cribs and strollers. The group claims that, since its founding in 1977, 50,000 babies were born as a result of its work.

Strangely enough, that is precisely part of what irks some of the group’s critics. “They’re using the woman for demographics,” complained a protest organizer, Tzaphira Allison Stern, mixing pregnancy with politics. “Why shouldn’t a woman have an abortion?” she asks rhetorically in Efrat’s name. “Because we need the baby so there are more Jews, and so there are more Israeli soldiers, so we can defend the land and continue the occupation.”

Ms. Stern is also piqued by her assumption that “the organization works only with Jewish women, rather than with Arab, Druse or Christian women, which illustrates that they care only about politics and not about women’s health.” Like many Jewish charities, Efrat indeed focuses on the Jewish community, but it is in fact open to any woman from any background.

Denigrators of Efrat condemn it, too, for what they allege was the group’s role in the death of a young man this past October. Stopped by police after a traffic accident, the distraught man pulled a gun and threatened to kill his pregnant girlfriend, prompting police to shoot him.  He died of a wound to the head, and the tragedy, schlepped along a convoluted path, was laid at Efrat’s door. Critics claimed that an Efrat employee had convinced the young woman to carry her child to term, which agitated the young man, and hence that the group was responsible for his fate (“death by counseling of another person” presumably). As it happens, Efrat insists that it has no record of any interaction at all with the young woman.

When Israel’s two chief rabbis came out in support of Efrat, the opposition grew even more heated, even though Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yona Metzger made clear that when he opposes termination of pregnancies he is “not talking about a pregnant woman who has psychological, medical or familial reasons” for considering such a move, but rather women who do so “due to financial considerations,” which, he explains, is “where Efrat comes in.”

The activists, nonetheless, were only further activated. “This is another step in the radicalization of religious figures,” declared Hedva Eyal, who runs an abortion hotline in Haifa, “and is part of the discrimination against women that we are witnessing… with respect to their decisions over their own lives and health.”

Left unexplained is how allowing women to make fully informed decisions about babies they are carrying — yes, babies; Israel permits abortions even into the third trimester of pregnancy — is discriminatory. An equally over-activated Nurit Tsur, the former executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, scoffed that “the Chief Rabbinate… has been infiltrated by haredi elements,” as if any authentic Jewish approach condones abortion for financial considerations.

There are many issues where contemporary mores stand in stark contrast with truly Jewish values. But both the modern mindset and the authentic Jewish one are in agreement that important decisions should be made with as much pertinent information in one’s possession as possible, and that limiting the acquisition of such information is wrong.

In cases of life and death — even when it may be only potential life that is at stake — the ideal of informed decision-making is paramount, at least in theory. In reality, it seems, some would force it to pay homage to some imagined “higher” feminist ideal, where women are somehow best served by being denied information.

© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

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  1. Joseph B Fischer says

    Most Jews, except possibly some Ultra-Orthodox, are in favor of women’s rights. But Judaism puts a premium on weighing competing, sometimes contradictory, values, based on their consequences in a given circumstance. (For example: preserving democracy vs. providing security.)

    The protestors claim that Efrat’s work of enabling financially-strapped pregnant women to have their babies is motivated by politics. They argue that Efrat works to reduce the number of abortions so there will be more future Israeli soldiers to maintain Israel’s “occupation” of what they consider Arab Muslim land.

    Yet, Arab Muslim rule is known for being oppressive of their women! Sharia law allows men to marry multiple wives, control their female population’s bodies and behavior, and considers them little more than chattel. The Arab Muslims have the fastest growing birth rate in the world, likely associated with restricted access to the very thing the protestors promote: women’s reproductive freedom!

    Given the scenario recommended by these protesters of Efrat’s work, Israel’s birthrate would decline, potentially leading to self (i.e. Muslim) rule in the West Bank. This in turn, would likely threaten women’s reproductive, as well as many other, rights.

    This presents a difficult ethical dilemma. Which human rights are more important? Is it more important for people to have self rule, or is it more important for women to have equal rights and reproductive freedom? Should we advocate for Arab Muslims to have their own democratically elected governments even if we have reason to expect that these governments will oppress women? Is it paternalistic of Israel (and America) to think that Western ideas of women’s rights are better than Muslim Sharia Law that allows women to be beaten and killed by their families if they are found to be “with child” of questionable origin?

    Do the protestors consider the consequences of a reduced Israeli Jewish population, or of Israeli withdrawal from parts of Judea and Samaria? Are women better off in the Gaza Strip now under Hamas than they were under Israeli administration? Women are second class citizens and have limited rights under many Arab Muslim governments. Are women who are under Arab Muslim Sharia Law getting the reproductive freedoms the protestors are fighting for?

    The demographic situation is one of the biggest issues facing Israel. If Arab Muslims continue to have large families and Jewish Israelis continue to have very small families, it will be a crisis for democracy in Israel. If Jews become the minority, either they will have to give up their democratic principals or accept the rule of the Arab Muslim majority, which could impose Sharia law and likely greatly reduce women’s rights.

    Leaving aside the Muslims, if secular Jewish Israelis continue to have very small families, the Orthodox with their large families will eventually become the majority. Do the women’s rights protestors look forward to all of Israel becoming Mea She’arim? Would there be more or less access to abortions if the Orthodox made the laws in Israel? Do they want women to be required to be covered from “wrist to toe”? Do they want access to birth control to be limited?

    This presents yet another ethical dilemma. Women rather than men have babies. What about women’s careers and aspirations? Where should the balance be between society encouraging Jewish Israeli women to have children and the value of empowering women whose aspirations don’t include being the mothers of large numbers of children?

    If a woman has decided to have an abortion just because of financial conditions, it is a mitzvah to provide the resources so she can have the baby. Given the demographic situation, it would be a good investment for the Israeli government to increase the monthly child benefits that they pay to families. Currently, the monthly benefits are about $40 for one child, $100 for two children, and $60 for each additional child. Israel already has excellent child care. But more could be done to enable women to balance professional careers and children at home.

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