Gearing Up For ‘Huge Battle’ On Abortion
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Gearing Up For ‘Huge Battle’ On Abortion

Jewish women’s groups piloting advocacy sessions at state level amid shifting political terrain.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Jody Rabhan of National Council of Jewish Women at a July 2016 rally for abortion access. Youtube.com
Jody Rabhan of National Council of Jewish Women at a July 2016 rally for abortion access. Youtube.com

As a strong advocate for women’s reproductive rights in Canton, Ohio — a small, blue-collar city south of Cleveland — Rabbi Jon Adland, the senior rabbi at the Reform Temple Israel, often feels isolated.

But after this past week — during which Gov. John Kasich signed into law a ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and the most restrictive piece of abortion legislation in the country passed the Ohio legislature — he began to feel pangs of defeat. (Kasich later vetoed the so-called “fetal heartbeat” bill, which would have banned abortions beyond six weeks.)

“On one hand, there’s a pronounced sense of resignation,” said Rabbi Adland, the immediate past chair of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America’s Clergy Advocacy Board (CAB), a diverse collaboration of faith leaders who aim to raise public awareness about the theological and moral basis for women’s reproductive choice, and a current board member of the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Ohio.

“On the other hand,” he told The Jewish Week, seeming to echo the views of many in the pro-choice community who are bracing for a tough fight, “the people who have fought this all along will not take this lying down. They continue to let their voices be heard, whether it changes anything or not.”

Though the effects of President-elect Donald Trump’s victory are only beginning to be felt, the tide in abortion politics has already shifted dramatically. From Trump’s promise to nominate a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court — conjuring the very real possibility of overturning the 1973 landmark case of Roe v. Wade — to efforts on Capitol Hill to ban taxpayer-financed abortions and slash federal funding for Planned Parenthood, legalized abortion is more imperiled than it has been for decades. 

For Jewish groups — and particularly women’s groups — who have long been activists on the issue, the new legislative landscape is a call to action.

“We’re gearing up for a huge defensive and offensive battle,” said Nancy Kaufman, chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), a national volunteer organization that has championed women’s rights and reproductive freedom for over a century. When she spoke to The Jewish Week last week, Kaufman was stepping out of a workshop on policy strategies at a summit for organizations that work on reproductive health in Washington, D.C.

“The question now is how to pivot to the states,” she said, pointing to the new abortion restrictions adopted by the Ohio statehouse, bills she would not have thought possible just months ago. She rattled off some of the “biggest fights we’re going to have”: potential codification of the Hyde Amendment, passed annually by Congress to ban taxpayer-funded abortions; limits on sex education; Medicaid cuts and the imperiled Affordable Care Act.

“The question is, Are there ways to prevent a total destabilizing of the basic safety net for women in terms of reproductive health?” said Kaufman. NCJW, with 65 sections across the country, many in red states, is strategically placed for action, she said.

“We are the progressive Jewish voice in Missouri, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania,” she said. “Since the election they’ve been saying ‘welcome to our lives!’” she said. “‘You guys on the coast have been living in a bubble.’” Organizing and supporting the “grassroots activists” in more conservative states is critical to “preventing a total freefall.”

The silver lining in all of this, said Kaufman, is the “enormous desire by people who haven’t been activists to act.”

“There has been a wakeup call — particularly among privileged, white, in our case Jewish, women, who thought everyone was like us,” she said. “That ain’t the case.”

NCJW is piloting reproductive justice trainings in Ohio, intended to coach local members and lay leaders on how to effectively advocate for women’s reproductive rights at the state level. Though the program was in the works before the elections, there is now an added sense of urgency, said the group’s director of Washington operations, Jody Rabhan.

“It’s long been our desire to adequately train folks,” said Rabhan, who said the vision is to create a two-day training session that weaves in the Jewish perspective on reproductive rights. “Actively building up the power of our grassroots activists in embattled states is key,” she said, describing fighting for reproductive choice as the organization’s “bread and butter. We’ve always felt that asserting reproductive choice means asserting our religious liberties — that matters more now than ever.”

Lori Weinstein, the CEO of Jewish Women International (JWI), a leading Jewish women’s organization that seeks to empower women and girls by fighting sexual violence and domestic abuse, said the changing tides in Washington and certain state legislatures “require more than a pivot — we need to do an about-face to protect women and their reproductive health.”

“People are fortifying themselves,” she said. “We’re gearing up for the fight we will have to take on.” In the next few months, JWI will “double down” on an agenda that seeks to protect the advances made in the last several decades since Roe. v. Wade — defending Planned Parenthood from potential defunding, joining coalitions who fight for reproductive justice, convening an interfaith clergy task force to discuss reproductive justice, meeting with allies in Congress, and activating their Young Women’s Leadership network on the issue are a few of the steps moving forward. “Political activism is more than going to the ballot box every four years,” said Weinstein. “Imperiling reproductive choice is a form of violence against women.”

Orthodox groups, which frequently tread a delicate line on the abortion question, nonetheless opposed the measures passed by the Ohio legislature.

“As a feminist organization, JOFA strongly believes that in general — and particularly early in a pregnancy — abortion is a decision that must rest in the hands of the woman, of course advised by her family, doctor and religious advisers,” wrote Sharon Weiss-Greenberg, executive director of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, in a release. “Given its commitment to halacha and religious liberty, JOFA is particularly outraged by laws and regulations that are so restrictive of women’s reproductive options that they make safe abortions difficult or impossible in cases where abortions may be permitted or encouraged by Jewish law.”

Even Agudath Israel, the charedi umbrella group, wrote a letter to Gov. Kasich opposing initiatives that would prohibit abortion when the pregnancy poses a risk to the physical or mental health of the mother.

Among Reform Jewish activists, vocal support for reproductive rights well precede the latest election. Rabbi Marla J. Feldman, executive director of the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the women’s affiliate of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the organization is driven by a fierce desire to “counter religious voices who stand in the way of reproductive choice.” For over 100 years, WRJ has been fighting for women’s reproductive rights, including the fight for birth control, she said.

“What we’re seeing now in Ohio is not new — we’ve seen laws challenging Roe v. Wade for a long time,” she said. Still, the new administration in Washington and potential shifts in the Supreme Court require a “different level of activism on the state level.”

“We’re moving beyond the scope of regular activism,” said Rabbi Feldman, who said advocacy training programs and lobbying seminars are in the works. At WRJ’s upcoming spring conference, a new session about advocacy in the “current Congress and beyond” filled up immediately, and now has a lengthy waiting list, Rabbi Feldman said.

Amid the political upheaval and fears for the future, Rabbi Adland in Canton recalled his mother, who fought for women’s right to use the pill as a method of birth control in the 1950s and ’60s. For him, the fight lies at the core of what it means to be a Jew, and an American.

“It drives me absolutely crazy when other religions want to impose their religious values on people who are not part of that religion,” said Rabbi Adland, who served as a rabbi in Indiana and Kentucky before moving to Ohio. “When human life begins is not a science, it’s a religious value. If legislatures start to impose religious values, what’s next after that?” n

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