In Israel today, women do not have full rights over their bodies. The Abortion Law (part of the 1977 Criminal Code) allows the right to abort a fetus only to women who meet certain criteria. Beyond this, by law, any and all women who wish to have an abortion must appear before a committee made up of professionals (doctors and social workers) who approve or reject her request to abort. These committees constitute a gross violation of the right to reproductive health inherent to all individuals, which includes the right to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Women report that the appearance before the committee can be an invasive and painful experience, in which they are required to lay out the intimate circumstances of the unplanned or unwanted pregnancy before a committee of professionals whom they have never met, in order to receive permission to carry out their personal wishes.
On Monday, January 2, 2017, at a hearing before the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women and Gender Equality, MK Yehuda Glick will propose the addition of a “religious figure” to these committees, with the goal of “reducing the rate of abortion in Israel.” As the director of a reproductive rights organization which helps hundreds of women and couples each year go through the process of making and implementing decisions surrounding unplanned pregnancy, it is difficult even to describe how far MK Glick’s proposal is from the steps needed to achieve his stated goal.
In a democratic country, there is no place for forcing the opinion of a religious figure onto a woman who seeks to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Such an opinion may indeed be an important part of a woman’s decision-making process regarding termination of a pregnancy, but only if this is her choice and on her terms, and in no way can such considerations be forced upon her as part of a mandatory committee with a legal mandate. Let’s not be mistaken: The presence of a religious figure on the abortion committees is nothing other than religious coercion in its essence. MK Glick’s proposal is cynical and frightening, and it constitutes an additional invasion of the religious establishment into the most private aspects of the lives of Israeli women, hidden in the neutral language of “reducing the rate of abortion.” Study after study has shown that limitations or prohibitions are not what bring about a reduction in abortion rates — education for healthy sexuality, education regarding contraception, and removal of barriers to reproductive health care are the necessary measures that allow women to take control of their fertility, according to their wishes, bringing a reduction in the rate of unplanned pregnancy.
Apparently, the “brief hearing,” announced on short notice, comes following the publication of statistics regarding abortion in Israel in 2014 by the Central Bureau of Statistics a few weeks ago. The numbers reflect another year in which the decrease in the rate of abortion — an ongoing trend since 1988 — has continued. Beyond this, the rate of abortion in Israel continues to be among the lowest in the OECD. But in a pro-natal country such as ours, where an inordinate number of public and private bodies track statistics regarding abortion with impressive fervor, this is not enough. They must get even further into our uteruses.
According to a comprehensive article by Dr. Noya Rimalt published this year (Iyunei Mishpat, vol. 39), in which she surveys the history of the abortion law in Israel, the discourse surrounding abortion in Israel has never been conducted using the terminology of “rights,” neither of the woman or the fetus. Instead, the discourse is governed by demographic and religious concerns, and therefore does not meet the needs of women. This newest proposal unfortunately continues this disappointing and even dangerous trend.
The time has come to shift the discourse: We as a society must support a rule of law which is based on a discourse of rights, and flows from the basic assumption of trust in women to make their own decisions regarding their bodies and their reproductive health.
Alexandra Berger-Polsky is the Director of “Lada’at – Choose Well” (formerly known as “Shilo”), the Jerusalem-based organization for the promotion of healthy sexuality and reproductive rights. She holds an MPH from Ben Gurion University.