Forty Years After Roe v. Wade, We Still Are Not In The Promised Land
New Year's Eve lost some of its festivity for me after reading the New York Times reporting the reaction to a fatal rape and beating in Delhi, India. Many women there say they are still subject to regular harassment and assault during the day and are afraid to leave their homes alone after dark. I only wish India were an isolated case.
This report underscores the unsettling fact no matter how much progress we think the world has made in upholding their basic rights, women are still not safe, not in enough control of their fate and well-being. How can a Jewish woman, for example, be arrested at the Western Wall for the crime of wanting to wear a tallit and address the same God Jewish men pray to?
As we prepare to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade on January 22, I am more and more convinced that Roe is about so much more than delineating trimester by trimester rights for women, or determining when life begins or when there is viability of the fetus. To my mind Roe v. Wade, in fact, takes on the question of whether the government, law enforcement, male-dominated institutions have the power to control basic decisions about women's lives. Those who yearn to repeal Roe v. Wade really want to correct the 'illusion' that women can make decisions about their own bodies and lives. You know and I know that if men had reproductive capabilities, no one would be disputing our right to fully control those functions. The male ego would insist on our right to choose - any day, any time, any trisemester!
No one I know is pro-abortion. Friends working in the pro-choice vineyards work hard to reach the day when abortions will be legal, safe and rare. But the right to choose must be cherished and protected.
For truth be told, it is getting harder to remember what things were like before Roe v. Wade. Read these few testimonies:
From the late Dr. Jane Hodgson:
…Before 1973, single women who got pregnant were fired from their jobs. Younger ones were sent to maternity homes for unwed mothers and their children were put up for adoption. Married women who got pregnant were forced to carry pregnancies to termregardless of their circumstances - even if they had so many children that they couldn't afford to feed another one; even if they had metastasized cancer; even if their fetuses couldn't live outside the womb because these fetuses had developed without a heart or brain.
And the late Reverend Howard Moody:
To get an abortion before it was legal, a woman had to meet someone in a parking lot late at night and be taken to some unknown place. She had no idea whose hands she was in-or if she would even survive.
Finally a New York Times editorial:
We do not need to guess about the brutal consequences of overturning Roe. We know from our own country's pre-Roe history and from the experience around the world. Women desperate to end a pregnancy would find a way to do so. Well-to-do women living in places where abortion is illegal would travel to other states where it is legal to obtain the procedure. Women lacking the resources would either be forced by the government and politicians to go through with an unwanted or risky pregnancy, attempt to self-abort or turn to an illegal-and potentially unsafe-provider for help. Women's health, privacy and equality would suffer. Some women would die.
Choice is the core principle in our Reform Judaism. The individual ultimately has the authority to make personal and spiritual decisions. So from a religious point of view I do not want us to be defensive about our pro-choice position. Choice is imbedded in our religious tradition, central to Holy Scriptures from their inception.
The fundamentalist right incessantly tries to tell us that their position is God's will.
They are wrong.
The fundamentalist right tries to tell us that Scripture explicitly sides against choice.
They are wrong!
Listen carefully: There is not a single verse, not a single verse in any Bible outlawing abortion.
The fundamentalist right will tell us that life begins at conception and that is a biblical point of view.
Again, they are wrong!
The only reference to abortion in all of Scripture, Hebrew Bible or Christian Bible, is actually an inadvertent reference, but it tells us a lot:
If two men fight together and hurt a woman carrying a child so that her fruit depart and yet no other harm follow, he shall be fined according as the woman's husband shall negotiate with him. But if any other harm follow, then there shall be eye for eye and tooth for tooth, life for life. [Exodus 21:22]
It is precisely because life does not begin at conception that the penalty is not death. The fetus clearly is not considered full life but potential life. Later Jewish teachings established when life begins and is interested, as Roe was from the outset, and as all of us need to be, with issues of viability.
The rabbis of this period surely would not have resonated to pro-choice language, but by teaching us that life does not begin at conception, they give us the sacred basis for the pro-choice position we hold dear today.
So let us celebrate this important anniversary, but let us also be vigilant. The ongoing struggle is not just about women's rights. It's about women's health and safety. It is about whether women's basic well-being can be controlled by people who care, not so much about women, but simply about control.
These months we celebrate the freedom inspired by Moses, inspired by Lincoln, inspired by Roe. We've come a long way, but 40 years later we are not yet in the Promised Land.
But we will get there - together.
Rabbi Robert N. Levine is the senior rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City.
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