Holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall last Friday, the National Council of Jewish Women’s New York Section launched a campaign against what its leaders call “fake” abortion clinics. That follows a webinar recently hosted by Jewish Women International to coach members on how they can best influence policies affecting women and girls; a “Reproductive Rights Action Night” at New York’s Stephen Wise Free Synagogue; and statements regarding reproductive rights issued by Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center and other groups.
All point to the alarm with which many Jews view efforts by the Trump administration and abortion opponents to roll back reproductive rights or women’s access to those rights. Indeed, as Planned Parenthood, the National Abortion Rights Action League and similar groups rally against those attempts, much of the Jewish community is mobilizing alongside them, or, in some cases, taking the lead.
The latest front in the battle is the President Trump’s plan to impose what’s often described as a domestic gag rule, which would affect Planned Parenthood and other agencies that receive Title X funds. Title X is the federal government’s only funding stream devoted entirely to family planning services, helping low-income patients get such services as contraceptive counseling, Pap tests, and screening for sexually transmitted infections. But under the gag rule, according to reproductive-rights activists, the government would withhold Title X funds from any program or agency that promotes abortion, refers patients to an abortion provider, or even mentions abortion as one of a patient’s options.
The Trump administration has already reinstated a global gag rule, which bans family planning clinics that receive American aid from performing abortions or discussing abortion with clients. But a domestic gag rule would apply the same prohibitions to agencies in this country, even though the right to an abortion remains the law of the land.
That is what has led activists to describe the administration’s move as part of a “war” on women’s health care and an effort to censor health-care professionals, as some proclaimed during a rally last month at City Hall. NCJW joined other organizations in calling for members to attend the protest, which was organized by regional affiliates of Planned Parenthood and was addressed by, among others, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and the city’s comptroller, Scott Stringer.
But rallies are only part of the strategy for reproductive-rights activists, including those in the Jewish community, according to staff members and leaders at several groups.
Jody Rabhan, director of Washington operations for NCJW, pointed out that after the publication of a proposed rule in the Federal Register, the public always has a period of time to comment on the change, requiring the administration to respond. “We’ll absolutely submit comments” as soon as the rule is released, Rabhan said.
Some of those submissions can be more effective than others, said Dorian Karp, advocacy and policy manager at the Washington-based JWI, who recently led a web-based seminar on the subject.
“One of the most effective ways of submitting a comment about a policy that you either support or oppose is to include a personal story about how you’ve been affected by the issue or how you’d be impacted if the rule moves forward,” Karp said. “It’s also good to cite statistics or previous research that “give your comment more weight.”
In the case of the domestic gag rule, the Department of Health and Human Services — the agency responsible for implementing the regulation — has chosen to give the public 60 days to comment on the rule once it’s been published, said Karp, whose webinar drew 130 people. The agency will then be required to review the comments and respond to various assertions of fact, such as figures and previous research, before publishing the final rule.
The process “not only creates a public record in support of, or opposition, to a rule,” Karp said, “but it can also create a foundation for a court challenge” to the regulation.
Beyond opposing the revised rule, NCJW, JWI and other groups are backing legislation in Congress that would fortify or buttress reproductive rights.
Rabhan singled out two measures supported by progressive activists — the Women’s Health Protection Act and the Each Woman Act — suggesting wryly that it’s “nice to have something you can finally support” for a change, rather than oppose. Originally introduced five years ago by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the first measure would bar states from imposing a restriction on abortion that “singles out abortion services or makes abortion services more difficult to access.” The EACH Woman Act — the first word is an acronym for “equal access to abortion coverage in health insurance” — would restore abortion coverage for women who receive health care or health insurance from the federal government and would prevent political interference with the decisions of private health-insurance firms to fund abortion.
“We’re going to push [the Women’s Health Protection Act] no matter who controls Congress and no matter who’s in the White House,” said Rabhan, who knows that the measure stands no chance of passage in the current political environment. The goal, she added, is to get as many co-sponsors as possible and to educate members of Congress “so that we start from a position of strength” once fortunes change. The bill currently has 41 co-sponsors in the Senate and more than 150 in the House.
Discussing how groups like hers mobilize their members, Karp said JWI notifies its members about three legislative issues each week through “3-2-1 Action,” an email alert sent out every Monday that provides talking points and phone numbers on Capitol Hill. The group also organizes two advocacy days each year for its young leaders.
The stands taken by both organizations reflect a broad consensus among American Jews on reproductive-rights issues.
In an email to The Jewish Week, David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the organization “opposes efforts to undermine or impede women’s reproductive health care access and choices in the U.S., including the recent proposal to implement a domestic gag rule.” The JCPA, he continued, “believes in the values of privacy, respect, dignity and women’s autonomy and moral agency, which are fundamental to safeguarding reproductive choice.”
The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center also issued a statement opposing the domestic gag rule, saying it would fly in the face of Jewish tradition by violating the “sacred doctor-patient relationship.” In addition, the Anti-Defamation League added its name last month to a letter, signed by 110 other organizations, urging Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar “to unequivocally reject calls for any iteration of the domestic gag rule.”
But the consensus isn’t unanimous.
Nathan J. Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Washington-based Advocacy Center, declined to comment last week on the proposed rule or on reproductive rights, in general. But the umbrella group of Orthodox Jewish congregations has long had a policy of not joining the JCPA’s resolutions on reproductive rights, saying in its most recent dissent that it “cannot endorse a public policy that does not reflect the complex response of halacha [Jewish law] to the abortion issue.” Halacha “proscribes abortion” in most circumstances, while permitting it and even mandating it in others, the OU said.
Locally, the NCJW’s New York Section is spearheading Pro-Truth, a campaign aimed at exposing “crisis pregnancy centers” that pose as licensed health-care or abortion clinics, but don’t have onsite medical professionals and don’t perform abortions, said Andrea Salwen Kopel, the chapter’s executive director.
Backed by a coalition of groups, the campaign has created a website, www.protruthny.org, that includes a map showing real clinics and fake ones. The effort’s goal isn’t to create additional legislation, Salwen said, adding that it “doesn’t have a purely legislative goal,” but one to “educate vulnerable populations so they can prevent themselves from being victimized or traumatized in the first place.”
In addition, social action committees and or task forces at congregations like Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and Rodeph Sholom, both Reform synagogues on the Upper West Side, and Ansche Chesed, a Conservative congregation on the Upper West Side, are backing the Reproductive Health Act in the New York State Legislature. The measure would codify Roe v Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision establishing the legal right to an abortion, in the state, backers say.
A recent “Reproductive Rights Action Night” at Stephen Wise focused on the measure, organizing a phone tree in which each person contacted would promise to call five others, said Tamar Yanay, the congregation’s social justice program associate. “That way,” she added, “you can call five people and end up contacting 30 people in 30 minutes.”
Surveying the political atmosphere, Rabhan acknowledged that the picture looks daunting at the moment for reproductive-rights activists. But she said advocates in the area regard their work as “a marathon and not a sprint. … We know that change doesn’t happen overnight.”