No Right To Choose In Israel

Everyone in America is up in arms about women’s rights.

The Republicans were hoping that this election would be all about the economy and their contention that President Obama had mishandled it. However now they are all scrambling, days out from their national convention, to condemn an off-the-cuff remark by one of their own. The much publicized clip of little-known Senator Todd Akin saying that women who are being ‘legitimately raped’ cannot be impregnated has spread through YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. After the collective jaws of the internet had dropped Akin gained the kind of infamy in overnight fame that most politician would kill for, except that it was for all the wrong reasons.

But while the rest of the world sniggers at Akin’s absurd and obscene comments, what are the abortion laws like here in Israel? Are we any more progressive than our American friends? Well…somewhat.

The good news is that abortion here in Israel is legal. The bad news is that it’s not your choice if you can get one. We here in Israel rightly pride ourselves on our liberal attitude towards homosexuals, women, Arabs and (sometimes) refugees. But whilst a woman in this country can become Prime Minister, she cannot decide her own fate when it comes to having children. Her fate is decided by that of a ‘termination committee’. This committee is staffed by three people: a family doctor, a gynecologist and a social worker. If you fail to convince this committee that your request for an abortion is legitimate then it will not be approved. Let’s forget the fact that this archaic mode of deciding a woman’s future is incredibly offensive and turn to the fact that the very idea to simply have an abortion is one that is fraught with distress and emotion. The decision to terminate a pregnancy is never one taken lightly and the fact that a woman in Israel has to petition a committee in order to justify it is simply disgusting.

Furthermore if certain MKs got their way then women wouldn’t even have a committee to hear their voices. MK Nissim Zeev from the Shas Party attempted to introduce legislation prohibiting abortions after the 22nd week. Whilst the bill was thankfully voted down in committee the figures that Zeev presented were quite troubling. According to his (admittedly unofficial) estimates there are around 20,000 legal abortions performed in Israel with 40,000 being performed privately or illegally.

The original 1977 law did allow for socioeconomic status to be taken into consideration when deciding whether or not an abortion would be granted. Yet the law was later amended in 1980 by the ultra-orthodox parties to remove that particular clause. Essentially women who are in no financial position to have a baby have no recourse but to carry the fetus to full term or seek out a dangerous and illegal abortion. Women who do not have the means to have a baby are forced to lie to the termination committee.

Making it harder for a woman to get an abortion does not mean that abortions will not occur. What will simply happen is that women will often attempt to obtain an unsafe or illegal abortion. The mantra of doctors and supporters of women’s rights is: keep abortions safe, legal and rare. Abortions are refuges of last resort. Not even the most vocal supporter of the pro-choice mandate would recommend a woman get an abortion for trivial reasons such as if they wanted a child with different hair or eye colour. Those who seek abortions are often doing so because they are in no social or economic position to have a baby.

Yet despite the presence of termination committees and outrageous MKs, Israeli women do have it somewhat better than their American counterparts. If an abortion is approved by the committee then it does fall under the purview of public health. The abortion will only cost a small copay and if you happen to have the abortion whilst undertaking army service then it is free. Yet even with the government funding of abortions this does not mean that Israel is the liberal paradise that it claims to be when it comes to reproductive rights.

Israel has a lot to be proud of with its record on women’s rights when compared to our immediate neighbors. It is tempting to highlight Saudi Arabia’s forcing of the hijab on women, banning them from voting or prohibiting them from driving to make ourselves feel better. But this is not a case where we can simply be a bit better than the worst of the misogynists. When it comes to women’s rights Israel must be beyond the fold. We must do away with the archaic and insulting ‘termination committees’ and give women the reproductive rights that they need in consultation with their doctors. This will hopefully lead to an end of illegal abortions that endanger women’s lives. Those women that do seek out medical help should feel that such a difficult decision can be discussed in the strictest of confidence with the best unbiased advice available. This is what we owe our daughters. This is what we deserve as the Middle East’s most liberal and liberated society.

About the Author
Raffe Gold spent two years living in Israel. He is now taking a short sabbatical from Aliyah to soak up the Australian sun.