Roe v. Wade: Corollary concerns

This post is co-authored with Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso.

In light of the recent leak of the Supreme Court’s draft of an opinion to abolish Roe v. Wade, there are a few important corollary issues to consider. Notably, the United States ranks poorly in maternal care and mortality when compared to other similar nations. Indiana’s maternal mortality rate is the third worst in the nation. In 2019, studies confirm that 80% of those maternal deaths could have been prevented. When it to comes to the protection of life, it appears that the Supreme Court and many state legislatures do not mean the life of the mother.

As clergy, we understand issues of reproductive rights as concerns of religious freedom. While Judaism views the fetus as potential human life to be protected, it is regarded, morally and legally, as part of the mother’s body, not an independent human being. Abortion is, hence, permitted when a mother’s physical or mental health is endangered, and mandated if the mother’s life is threatened. A leading 19th-century rabbi expressed it this way: “No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.” 

Individuals and particular religious traditions have the right to their opinions on abortion or other matters of personal status, but they do not have the right to impose those opinions on others. Choices regarding reproductive freedom and abortion are not just about personal autonomy; they impinge on the realm of religious freedom.

As rabbis, over the years, we have been called to provide emotional and spiritual support to women who had to make the excruciating decision to have an abortion when the danger of carrying a pregnancy to term threatened either the fetus or the mother. Neither the court nor politicians belong in those conversations. They are medical concerns and issues of conscience.

Realistically, regardless of the Court’s decision, women will continue to have abortions, legally or not. The difference will be how safe the procedures will be, who can obtain them, and how many women will experience serious health issues and possibly die. Before the Roe v. Wade landmark decision in 1973, there were considerable numbers of women who died from the procedure. Now death from termination of pregnancy is rare. We cannot afford to return to a time when abortion laws jeopardized women’s health, impacted on family lives, and consisted of a classist two-tiered system of access to maternal health.

The “originalist” argument of some pundits and members of the Supreme Court is that the right to abortion is not found in the Constitution. One need not be a constitutional scholar to be less than surprised at its absence. The Constitution was written by men. Women were deemed to have an inferior status, and, along with people of color, were denied many rights, including the right to vote. We have made changes to the Constitution to rectify these and other inequities and to ensure women’s and all people’s civil rights. Interestingly, abortion was, in fact, permitted when the nation was first founded and was not made illegal until the mid-1880s. 

Like the failed Religious Freedom Restoration Act (2015), limiting access to women’s health and reproductive freedom in our state would adversely affect attracting talent and opportunity to Indiana. 

Many positive actions can be taken, instead of prohibiting abortion, that would be life-affirming. Reduction of poverty, increased accessibility of health care and affordability of contraception, the availability of medically sound sex education, and the expansion of childcare are the issues regarding which we need governmental interference; not in a woman’s decisions about her body.

Michigan Governor, Gretchen Whittier, said it well: “Americans in every region of the nation…trust women, not politicians, to make decisions about their own bodies.” As democracies around the world become more affirming of women’s rights, it is alarming and tragic that some of our leaders want to drag our nation in the opposite direction.

About the Author
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis after serving for 36 years. Rabbi Sasso is the Director of Religion Spirituality and the Arts at IUPUI, Co-Founder of Women4Change Indiana and an author, having won the National Jewish Book Award and Indiana Author's Award.