Speculative move by two religious lawmakers to change the 40-year status quo regarding abortion has sparked furious backlash.
Abortion may be one of the most politically charged issues in the world related to religion – but you’d never know it in Israel. While Israelis are eager to furiously debate nearly anything else involving religion and politics – from kosher standards in the army to buses on Shabbat, to women’s prayer at the Western Wall – there is near-silence on the issue of when life begins in the womb.
The status quo that is clung to so tightly has allowed invasive but relatively permissive abortion laws to remain in place nearly undisturbed for 40 years.
This week, though, in a rare occurrence, a proposal was floated that would invite religious input into abortion decisions – and the reaction was explosive.
What happened? Two lawmakers – one an Orthodox Jew, Yehudah Glick (Likud); the other an observant Muslim, Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya (Joint List) – dared raise the idea of including a member of the clergy (a rabbi or an Islamic “qadi,” responsible for interpreting Islamic Sharia law) on the state committees that Israeli women seeking abortions must consult before obtaining one.
Simply the news that the idea was being discussed by the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women sparked a furious backlash. As soon as word got out about the hearing, a female cry swept across Hebrew social media to “keep the rabbis out of our uterus!”
In a preemptive strike, numerous Knesset members came out strongly against it on their Facebook pages even before the Knesset panel met. The very idea was “dangerous and scandalous,” wrote Meretz Chairwoman Zehava Galon, who spearheaded opposition to the proposal. The very existence of the abortion panels, which she called a “black, shameful stain on Israeli society,” was bad enough. But to insert the clergy into an already “humiliating” process was intolerable, she added.
“Two male legislators, each one extremely religious, want to invade women in their most intimate space, their bodies,” wrote MK Revital Swid (Zionist Union). “Who are you, my male friends, to invade a place that is so personal – physically, emotionally female – and try to invade it, forcing in your religious considerations? Every woman makes her own decision and if religious issues are important to her, she will weigh them herself and act accordingly. Why at that moment, which is already so uncomfortable and embarrassing, force a man of religion to be present? As a kosher inspector?”
At the Knesset hearing itself, the idea was criticized by female lawmakers from both the governing coalition and the opposition, who agreed that they would oppose the idea if it became proposed legislation.
The strong reaction to such a relatively toothless proposal revealed the delicate nature of this powder-keg issue in Israel.
The current status quo has something for everyone: It offers the semblance of regulation for those conservatives who want abortion to be discouraged, while in reality almost any woman who wants an abortion is able to obtain one – and an estimated 40,000 Israelis obtain them every year.
The existing abortion law was passed in 1977. Under the law, the procedure is nearly automatically legal if women are aged under 18 or over 40; the fetus has a serious mental or physical defect; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or adultery; or if it threatens the woman’s physical or mental health. For teenagers and soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces, abortions are fully funded by the state.
In practice, this means that legal abortion is easy to obtain except for those who are married and of standard childbearing age – between 18 and 40.
A healthy married woman who wants an abortion in a public facility must face a committee composed of social workers and doctors in order to have her abortion approved.
Often, those who fall into that category resort to white lies, saying they are single, mentally unstable or pregnant out of wedlock, in order to eliminate obstacles – which is the reason why more than 96 percent of women who seek legal abortions are able to have them.
It is to this committee that the two lawmakers proposed adding a religious authority, in order to “help explain” any religious issues she might have.
In reality, if a woman has several hundred dollars, obtaining a private abortion in a doctor’s clinic and sidestepping the panels is much more efficient. Though technically such physicians are breaking an unenforced law, the practice is common and widespread, allowing any woman – regardless of marital status, age or personal situation – to obtain an abortion discreetly and far more quickly than the official process.
Before Monday’s Knesset hearing, Glick told Haaretz that he found the lack of accountability troubling. He complained that the authorities didn’t release abortion statistics regularly, and that it was problematic that nearly every woman who went before an abortion panel was approved for the procedure, and also that private abortions were regularly performed with no consequences.
Hajj Yahya said the purpose of the hearing was to explore the issue and find members of the coalition who would be willing to support introducing clergy onto the abortion panels – “not to pressure, but to explain.”
Before the hearing, the two lawmakers released statistics they had obtained. These showed that although the rate of legal abortions had dropped among the overall Israeli population, the number in the non-Jewish sector had climbed. It was notable, though, that the chairwoman of the committee, Aida Touma-Suliman – also a Joint List member – opposed the proposal as strongly as her counterparts in other parties.
And so it seems that, ironically, in a country where religious identity is central, and where the observant and secular, and Jews and Muslims clash so frequently, a quiet consensus seems to exist on the hot-button issue of abortion.
Attempts to rock the boat are few and far between. The last time a serious attempt was made to change the status quo was 2006, when a bill introduced by Galon – which would have eliminated the abortion committees – was soundly defeated by an overwhelming majority. Then-Health Minister Jacob Edery said that the government, led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposed the bill because it did not believe “now is the time to reopen this complicated and problematic discussion. We must remember that the termination of pregnancy is a complicated and sensitive social issue, and every change is a change in the status quo between different worldviews.”
Abortion also briefly hit the headlines in 2013, when the country’s two chief rabbis issued a letter in support of the Efrat antiabortion organization, saying they wanted to make “the wider public aware of the extreme seriousness involved in killing fetuses, which is like actual murder.”
Abortion in Israel is an area in which neither extreme is completely satisfied, but any movement toward real change is viewed with nervous suspicion.
Jewish and Muslim clerics don’t want abortion banned outright – neither religion utterly forbids it – but they surely wish that the committees weren’t so liberal in permitting abortions and that they weren’t so commonly obtained. And women’s advocates who believe in autonomy over their own bodies would clearly prefer it if the abortion panels didn’t exist at all, and showed this week that they deeply fear – and will fight furiously against – any new obstacles put in the way of a woman’s choice.