Abortion Animating Jewish Activists As 2020 Looms
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Abortion Animating Jewish Activists As 2020 Looms

Groups pushing freedom of religion argument in battle over reproductive rights.

NCJW members in St. Louis rally recently against an effort in Missouri to shut down the last abortion clinic in the state.  Liz Schneider
NCJW members in St. Louis rally recently against an effort in Missouri to shut down the last abortion clinic in the state. Liz Schneider

Some say the assault started in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. Others point to the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in October 2018. But Jewish activists around the country agree that abortion access has never been as threatened, in state legislatures and the courts, as it is today.

“We’ve got folks in all of these states, and it is a day-in, day-out battle,” said Jody Rabhan, director of government relations and advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women.

Since President Trump was elected, with help from large numbers of evangelical Christians who oppose abortion, pro-choice activists have been warning of an impending assault on abortion access. Now, eight months after the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh and the establishment of a 5-4 conservative majority on the high court, the battleground has spread across statehouses and courthouses and to the U.S. Senate. With the 2020 election on the horizon, Jewish activists are gearing up for a sustained fight over one of the most divisive culture war issues in American politics.

“We’ve got folks in all of these states, and it is a day-in, day-out battle,” says NCJW’s Jody Rabhan. Above, the recent rally in St. Louis. Liz Schneider

“Last year, with the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, it was something that came front and center for people, just knowing that there would be a Supreme Court justice who may seek to overturn Roe v. Wade,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

“It’s true that many of us thought that after Roe v. Wade, the battle was won. But the right-wing evangelicals have spent the last 40 years figuring out how to undo Roe v. Wade,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization.

On the one hand, women have perhaps never been as activated to vote, protest and lobby members of Congress as they have been since the 2016 election. Yet the last six months have seen a rapid rollback in abortion access as state governments adopt increasingly restrictive laws. Anti-abortion activists, emboldened by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, are hoping the court will revise, if not overturn completely, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion across the country.

Joe Biden’s flip-flop on a question about a ban on federal funding for abortion has given fresh life to the debate on women’s reproductive rights. Getty Images

Many advocates for abortion access point out that restrictions tend to most negatively affect poorer women. “It’s going to be the case that those who can afford it will find a way to get an abortion legally in a different state or otherwise, so there’s certainly much more of an impact for those who aren’t able to travel out of state,” said Rabbi Jacobs.

“Though Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, that is hardly the reality for people across the country, and Missouri is a perfect example of [a state] with one abortion clinic left. … It’s nearly impossible for people [there] to exert their right to an abortion,” said Rabhan.

But many view the abortion question as one of religious freedom, arguing that bans on abortion are based on a Christian understanding of when human life begins, and that such bans discriminate against those who practice other faiths.

“For Jews this is not only a women’s rights issue, but it’s also a freedom of religion issue,” said Rabbi Jacobs. “We could end up in a situation in which one particular Christian interpretation of abortion law means that a woman who is permitted or even required to have an abortion according to Jewish law is not able to realize her religious freedom.”

“The attempt to codify one religion is completely antithetical to American values, not just Jewish values,” said Rabhan. “There is not one faith in this country.”

Within the Jewish community, a pro-choice attitude has long been dominant. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 83 percent of Jewish Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The only other religious groups surveyed that believe that abortion should be legal in higher numbers are Unitarian Universalists, atheists and agnostics. “There’s no question that the Jewish community is outraged and deeply concerned by this growing trend around our country of denying rights of women at the state level,” said Soifer.

“This is a consensus issue in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Jacobs.

Still, that consensus may not extend fully to the Orthodox sector, approximately 10 percent of the Jewish population, which has not made abortion a legislative priority. While the Orthodox generally consider abortion to be permissible, especially if the mother’s life is in danger, the more traditionally minded would reject an “abortion on demand” approach. In recent years, the Orthodox have often found themselves more aligned politically with the Christian right than with their more liberal coreligionists.

For the National Council of Jewish Women, the fight to protect abortion access is spreading across statehouses, such as those in New York and Illinois, where activists pushed for legislation to enshrine legal access to abortion, and in the Senate, where judicial nominees are confirmed to lifetime appointments. Rabhan says NCJW has worked in coalition with other organizations to oppose several judicial nominations by the Trump administration, successfully blocking four judges.

Also in the Senate, NCJW has worked to reintroduce the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would outlaw additional restrictions on women seeking abortions that are not medically necessary, and to introduce the Each Woman Act, a bill that would lift the ban on federal funding (namely Medicaid) for abortion imposed by the Hyde Amendment, for the first time. Both bills, though, are essentially doomed in the Senate, which Rabhan called a “legislative graveyard.”

The Religious Action Center, the legislative branch of the Reform movement, and Women of Reform Judaism recently launched a cohort for Reform congregations across the country to work together on advocacy around abortion. Allison Grossman, the RAC’s legislative director, says the cohort was a natural result of increased interest from Reform congregations. “We’re hearing from our congregations who are really fired up and motivated to work on this issue,” said Grossman. “We’ve heard from congregants who remember what it was like before [Roe v. Wade] and are committed to not going back.”

Abortion is also gaining new relevance as an issue in the Democratic primary after former Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, reaffirmed his support for the Hyde Amendment before flipping his position the next day to oppose the amendment, which bars federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. Elizabeth Warren and other presidential primary contenders had pounced on Biden after his initial support for the amendment, noting that the Hyde Amendment’s effects are largely borne by poor women who cannot afford to pay for an abortion out-of-pocket.

Though abortion has not constituted a top priority for most Democratic voters in past elections, with women becoming a more critical portion of the Democratic electorate in recent years and with the threat of a Roe v. Wade reversal, abortion may be posed as a more central issue in the 2020 presidential election.

“For an entire generation of women, we’ve never had to fight for these freedoms because it was something that past generations had fought for, so I do think that for younger women especially this has been a wake up call,” said Soifer.

“I think we have seen, since 2016, a sense of urgency across the board,” said Rabhan. “I have seen an uptick in women’s activism, no matter where people live, no matter their age, no matter their economic circumstances.”

Nancy Litz, vice president of advocacy at the National Council of Jewish Women in St. Louis, says she has seen an increased interest in advocacy from women who were previously not engaged.

“I think people who have only had adult years since the Roe decision never really had wrapped their heads around the fact that this was something that could change until very recently,” said Litz. “I think it really came into focus around and immediately after the Kavanaugh hearings, when as soon as that appointment was approved, you started seeing these incredibly extreme measures popping up in statehouses all over the country almost in a race to the Supreme Court.”

In Missouri, she and others have fought to keep the last abortion-providing clinic open in the state. Litz recently spoke at a rally on the state legislature’s steps where she told her own story of getting an abortion in 1967 during her first year of college. “As women, I think we have a lot more power than we’re used to exerting, and,” she said, “I think we really need to stand together.”

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