Tag Archives: abortion

The Bully Pulpit

I recently attended the bat mitzvah of a cousin’s daughter at the synagogue in which I grew up.  My cousin’s daughter did a great job with her Torah portion, but I was particularly struck by the sermon, in which Rabbi Dennis Sasso forcefully and eloquently connected those ancient teachings to America’s contemporary challenges.

I sometimes need to remind myself that for every judgmental scold or religious con-man, there is a religious leader like Rabbi Sasso wrestling with the nature of human community and authentic moral behavior.

He was kind enough to share a copy of his remarks.

 Judaism is not just a set of general principles or lofty ideals. It is the living out of those values in the here and now, in the everyday of human encounter between a person and his/her neighbor, a man and woman, parents and children, elected officials and the people, nation and nation.

And so, in this week’s Torah portion, entitled Mishpatim (“Ordinances”), we have the fleshing out of the Ten Commandments. We find here the beginnings of a constitutional biblical tradition, upon which future post-biblical (rabbinic) legislation will evolve, not just as a faith tradition but as a religion of ethical nationhood.

The Rabbi noted that the book of Exodus contains many laws that mirror those of our civil state, including, most significantly, “laws forbidding the oppression of the powerless, the weak, the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger — the disenfranchised members of society.”

The commandment to “love your neighbor” occurs in Leviticus 19. However, the commandment to “love the stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant, (a much more difficult task) – occurs here twice and 36 times in the Torah (“Love the stranger…” “for you know the heart of the stranger, as you were strangers in the land of Egypt”).

The heart of the sermon–at least to me–was the explicit application of Jewish teaching to matters pending at the Indiana legislature.

Reading through this week’s portion we can find guidance regarding many bills currently before our State and Federal Legislatures.

There is SB 439 – regarding Hate Crime Laws – likely not to pass in Indiana because of the pressure of conservative forces that feign to promote themselves as religious.      Well, they are quite out of sync with the biblical heritage they purport to uphold – a heritage that teaches – “You shall not hate your neighbor in your heart.”

The growing vitriol expressed in words and acts of anti-Semitism, Islamphobia and other ethnic and gender directed prejudice speak of an epidemic of hate that must be contained. We should be alarmed by what is happening to words in our times – particularly in the political and religious arenas. Language has become shrill, offensive and misleading. Words, angry and hostile weapons.

Then there are legislative initiatives to curtail rights for LGBTQ+ citizens and to impose doctrinal understandings of reproductive health and abortion rights. Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion contains the key passage that defines miscarriage and abortion not as murder, but as a civil matter (Ex. 21:22-24).

Abortion is a painful and serious decision to be made by a woman in consultation with her physician, loved ones and in keeping with her religious values. In the Jewish legal and moral tradition, termination of pregnancy is never defined as homicide, and it is not only permissible, but required to protect the life and health of the mother, in some cases even her mental health. In Jewish law, the fetus is not defined as a “person,” with independent legal and moral status, until the moment of delivery. Judaism does not share the view that human life begins at conception. Throughout pregnancy the fetus is potential life, to be honored and protected, but dependent on and subordinate to the life of the mother.

To impose particular doctrinal restrictions on abortion constitutes not only a violation of privacy and civil rights, but a limitation of religious rights, by imposing beliefs and values that counter the faith traditions of others. And certainly to muddle legislation with unscientific and potentially injurious information is a pious fraud.

Consider the higher health risks for women and infants that proposed legislation – which includes threats to cut funds for Planned Parenthood – would involve. Our state’s infant mortality rate, already among the highest in the country, would rise dramatically.

Ironically, some of the same groups that counter hate crime laws, and advance restrictions on health care and civil rights, piously advocate for prayer in public schools and, paradoxically, promote liberalization of gun laws – guns that can kill in schools, domestic settings and hateful social encounters…

Today, our nation struggles with the issue of immigration, our response and responsibilities to the stranger in our midst. Our deepest Jewish convictions tell us that protecting the humanity of immigrants, who have come to the United States to better lives for themselves and their children, puts our communities on a path towards strengthening families and society and ultimately, the moral values of our nation. By all means, we need to ensure the safety of the homeland, and guard the security of our borders, but not in ways that discriminate, intimidate and create a siege mentality and police state.

Keeping families together, allowing immigrants to fully contribute to our communities, providing relief for millions of aspiring Americans from unnecessary deportation and family separation, these are at the heart of the Jewish legislative and moral traditions. It is also the best of the American tradition which we as Jews have helped to shape and from which we have benefited.

The Rabbi closed with this profound and increasingly relevant quote from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; … its message becomes meaningless.

Words applicable to both religion and political ideology–and definitely worth pondering.

 

 

Recognizing Reality

The Supreme Court has finally stepped in to say “enough” to the oh-so-clever politicians trying to mask their disdain for women’s autonomy by pretending a concern for women’s health.

The Texas law that triggered the lawsuit was one of a number of similar efforts to cloak anti-choice measures in excessive and onerous “medical” regulations. It required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and imposed a number of physical requirements on clinics, making them meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.

Although Texas argued that the measures were aimed at protecting women’s health, Rick Perry was among the political figures who were more forthright about the law’s actual motive, describing it as one step toward an “ideal world” in which there would be no abortion.

Motive aside, as Justice Breyer wrote for the majority, neither of the provisions imposed by Texas “offers medical benefits sufficient to justify the burdens upon access that each imposes.” Justice Ginsberg was more blunt, noting that “It is beyond rational belief” that those provisions actually protected women’s health.

As numerous medical experts have pointed out, abortion is one of the safest of medical procedures. (Colonoscopies and tonsillectomies are riskier, but political figures expressing concern about those operations are non-existent.)

What participants in the ongoing battles over reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and other “culture war” issues that roil American public debate miss is the actual legal question at the heart of these conflicts. The issue is not whether a woman should terminate a pregnancy or carry it to term; the question is: who should decide what she should do?

Too many Americans fail to understand the purpose of the Bill of Rights, which was to protect individual autonomy—a person’s right to self-government—against government infringement. The Bill of Rights, as I tell my students, is a list of things that government is prohibited from doing. Government cannot tell you what to say, or what to believe, no matter how ugly your speech or deluded your belief. Government cannot tell you whether or how to pray, who to marry, how many children to have, or what career to follow.

Government can’t do these things even if a majority of its citizens wants it to. Just as your neighbors cannot vote to make you an Episcopalian or a Baptist, popular majorities cannot use government to restrict the individual liberties protected by the Bill of Rights.

In short, government cannot tell you how to live your life—how to make what the Court has called your most “intimate decisions.” The rest of us don’t have to agree with the decisions you make, but you get to make them.

The Texas law was one of several transparent efforts by lawmakers trying to do an “end run” around a woman’s right to make decisions with which they disagree.

Fortunately, the Court saw through the dishonesty of that effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Killing for Life…

Well, evidently, failed Presidential contender Ted Cruz had a “pro life” adviser who wants to execute abortion providers. (“Pro life” folks like these always remind me of that Cold War-era Second City skit: “Kill a Commie for Christ.”)

Abortion is a very thorny issue. Unlike so much of the culture war agenda, there is a genuine argument to be made by those who see abortion as equivalent to murder. They tend to start from very different premises than those of us who defend a woman’s right to control her own autonomy–they see a human being from the moment of conception, and believe that the interests of that potential human should be given priority over the rights of the woman who is carrying it.

Pro-choice defenders have many responses to that viewpoint, both moral and practical, but we can–and mostly do– respect the legitimacy of that perspective, and the sincerity of many people who hold it.

Unfortunately for the conduct of the “abortion wars,” however, the loudest voices claiming the “pro-life” label are anything but legitimately pro-life. Their ranks are filled with fundamentalist culture warriors fanatically opposed both to women’s autonomy and to our equality. Their concern for “life” rather pointedly excludes the life of the woman, and it extends to the fetus only until it is born. These are the dishonest “filmmakers” who doctor surreptitious videos, the “pro life” legislators unwilling to spend money to feed or house or properly educate poor children once they are born, the opponents of birth control…Well, you all know the drill.

But the worst of the worst are the men (and they’re almost always men) who advocate killing in the service of “life.” The men who murder abortion doctors, the political opportunists who argue that women should carry their rapist’s baby to term, the un-self-aware pontificators who advocate prison or even execution for those who help desperate women avoid back-alley abortions.

Let’s get real.

As my friends in Planned Parenthood point out, women didn’t start getting abortions after Roe v. Wade. They just stopped dying from them. But theirs are clearly not the lives that matter to the sanctimonious “pro life” culture warriors like Cruz and his “advisor.”

There’s a reason that so many observers considered Ted Cruz even more dangerous than Donald Trump. Although–as Lindsay Graham memorably put it–choosing between the two of them would be like choosing between death by gun or by poison….

 

UnAmerican Activities–War on Women Edition

Several readers have asked me why I haven’t written anything about Indiana’s horrific House Bill 1337.

To be honest, words fail. Once again, national news outlets are using Indiana as an example of right-wing extremism untempered by even a hint of compassion or common sense.

As Salon noted, if it is somehow upheld, this measure–on Mike Pence’s desk for a signature that is a foregone conclusion–will end virtually all abortions in the state.

The legislation authorizes an entire menu of grotesquely unconstitutional anti-choice TRAP(Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, as well as new forms of authoritarian, misogynistic devilry, each of which could be defined as reproductive Jim Crow laws. Put another way, the new Indiana bill is in keeping with a series of laws that don’t outright ban abortion, but which makes it really, really difficult to have a safe and legal abortion.

The bill is a mashup of grisly, gratuitous measures having no purpose whatsoever other than to punish women who choose to exercise their constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.

The bill itself is an abortion. It requires burial of the fetus–a funeral for what in most cases is little more than a microscopic clump of undifferentiated cells. It mandates fetal ultrasounds. It requires the woman to listen to the fetal heartbeat (despite the fact that, in many if not most cases, the procedure occurs too early to allow detection of a heartbeat).

The fetal heartbeat screening and the ultrasound procedure have to be conducted 18 hours prior to having an abortion. What makes this waiting period particularly vile is that previous TRAP laws have closed most of Indiana’s abortion clinics, leaving just four counties out of 92 with abortion facilities. In other words, if you choose to terminate, you’ll likely have to travel not-insignificant distances in order to find a clinic. From there, you’ll have to bed down at a hotel or elsewhere while your 18 hour waiting period winds down. Yet another expense on top of the abortion itself.

There’s much more, but by far the most offensive provision–in a bill filled with offensive provisions–requires a woman to carry a pregnancy to term if the motive for the abortion is that the fetus is deformed or disabled.

Think about that. The men at Indiana’s General Assembly have decided that they know best whether a woman who finds herself pregnant with a profoundly damaged fetus has the financial and/or emotional resources to spend the rest of her life caring for a disabled child. These legislators know better than the woman and her husband–who may have desperately wanted the pregnancy–the emotional toll of giving birth to a child who cannot live more than a few hours or weeks after birth.

And don’t get me started down the legal rabbit-hole of determining a pregnant woman’s “real” motive for aborting.

As one ob/gyn observes, this bill is just another assault in social conservatives’ dogged and persistent war on women’s autonomy. It is all about control. There is nothing medical about it.

The truth is, these legislative fights over reproductive choice aren’t really fights about the decision to abort. They are fights about who gets to make the decision. 

Giving government the right to decide whether an individual woman should carry a pregnancy to term is no less dangerous than giving government the right to dictate her reading material or religious affiliation. The Bill of Rights rests on the Founders’ belief that—although individuals may certainly make bad or dangerous choices—empowering government to make those choices for us is far more dangerous.

The government that can prohibit abortion today can require it tomorrow. Ask the Chinese.

 

 

Rape, Incest and Ben Carson

Shades of Richard Mourdock and “what God intended”!

Among the many other retrograde positions he has taken, Ben Carson wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade and criminalize all abortions. As Ed Brayton reported at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, 

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Sunday that believes Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and that women should not be allowed to have abortions even in the case of rape or incest.

“The mother should not believe that the baby is her enemy and should not be looking to terminate the baby,” Carson opined to NBC host Chuck Todd. “We’ve allowed purveyors of division to think that baby is their enemy and they have a right to kill it. Can you see how perverted that line of thinking is?”

There are a number of possible responses to this latest evidence of Carson’s worldview: the most rational is to simply shrug. Ben Carson isn’t going to be President of the U.S.–despite his current lead in GOP polls, he isn’t even going to be the Republican nominee, so the fact that he wants to make women carry their rapist’s baby to term–however creepy or nauseating one might find that–is ultimately irrelevant.

On the other hand, Carson is hardly the only Republican who sees “God’s will” in the consequences of a rape. Mourdock and Akin were the most high-profile, but there are plenty of others–almost all of them men– who want to deny women not just the right to abort, but access to birth control as well. (After all, if you give us the right to control our own reproduction, we’re likely to get all uppity and start thinking we’re equal to men.)

I don’t really expect this latest pronouncement to damage Carson’s popularity with the GOP fringe. After all, if stating that racism wasn’t a problem before Obama’s election, that Muslims should not be allowed to be President, that evolution is a “Satanic plot,” that we need to get rid of Medicare and Medicaid, and that university professors should be monitored and censored only operated to endear him to the party base, this latest evidence of bizarre reasoning is unlikely to offend them.

What’s a little misogyny among Republicans?