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The Texas anti-choice law and the Torah’s call to choose life

We had a 25% genetic chance of having a Tay-Sachs baby destined for a short, painful life. Knowing abortion was an option made it possible for us to create our family

When my wife Sue and I decided to get married 33 years ago, we looked forward to raising our children in a home filled with love and Jewish tradition. As a rabbi, I had worked with many couples in preparation for marriage and I knew that since both of us were Ashkenazi (East European) Jews, there was a slight possibility that one or both of us might carry the gene for Tay-Sachs – a rare, incurable genetic disorder that results in a painful death within five years of birth. When I mentioned to Sue that one of us should be tested for Tay-Sachs, she told me “Oh – I was tested when I was in college. I think I am a carrier – but you’re probably not.”

Imagine my surprise when I found out that I too was positive. Our genetic counselor explained that even though both of us were carriers, we still could have healthy children. With each pregnancy, there was a 25% chance that we would conceive an embryo that would be infected with the disease. We were willing to take the risk, and thankfully, 30 years ago we were blessed by the birth of our daughter, Elana.

Our luck changed with our second pregnancy, however. To hear from our doctor at 14 weeks of a pregnancy that the embryo we so desperately wanted to bring to term had a fatal disease was devastating. Thankfully, abortion was legal and safe in our then home state of Minnesota. As difficult as it was to say goodbye to the hopes and dreams of a second child, the thought of having to care for and bury a suffering child was unbearable. Termination of the pregnancy was the obvious choice. Sue received excellent care and together we grieved the loss of what might have been.

Three years after the birth of our first child, Elana, we were blessed with a son, Ethan. Both of our children are healthy. Soon, Sue and I will stand under the chuppah as Elana marries our beloved future son-in-law Greg and, we hope, God willing, that when they are ready to have children of their own, they will not have to face the same type of painful choice caused by a complication during pregnancy. Right now, however, I am worried their choices may be limited or destroyed; in the aftermath of the passage and the Supreme Court’s cowardly refusal to disavow the disastrous Texas anti-abortion law Senate Bill 8, the future of a woman’s right to make her own choices about reproduction and health care is in grave danger.

This law, enacted by the Texas Legislature and signed into law by Governor Abbot, is a travesty and a tragedy for women’s rights and reproductive freedom, not only in Texas, but anywhere anti-choice activists hold sway over state legislators. The Texas law not only criminalizes all abortions after six weeks, but also makes it possible for anyone who helped women obtain the termination of a pregnancy liable for lawsuits: from doctors and medical professionals to Uber drivers, support staff at health centers and anyone who is remotely connected to the process.

In the Torah portion Nitzavim, a parasha that is very familiar to us because we in the Reform Movement also read it on Yom Kippur, we find the following stirring words:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants may live! (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The words, “choose life” are quite powerful. But they also can be spun and defined in a variety of ways. They can be used to motivate us to live to our highest potential – choosing God’s loftiest ideals for our daily living and the choices we make, or they can be used as a weapon to narrowly define an agenda of intolerance.

For the authors of the Texas law and other laws like it that are germinating around the country, those who would impose their fundamentalist and draconian definition of when life begins, “choosing life” means that the government has both the ability and responsibility to legislate women’s bodies without regard to personal freedom, physical or mental health, abuse, rape, or economic hardship.

For me, “choose life” means that as humans blessed with the precious gift of life, we have a responsibility to live our lives in ways that affirm the highest aspirations of humanity. It means that we are tasked to do all that we can to show honor to God’s creation and to work together to create communities that both respect the choices and empathize with the difficulties of those around us. It does not mean imposing our narrow understandings of life’s questions, traumas, and values on others.

When Sue and I first shared our story last year in response to Colorado’s Proposition 115, an anti-abortion ballot measure, we received many emails and letters of support. People praised us for our bravery and our willingness to tell our story on behalf of all those who are on the front lines of women’s health care and reproductive freedom. At the same time, we also received many communications and threats that called us “murderers” and evil people who deserved to burn in hell for eternity.

I feel – passionately – that such a decision should be made by individual women – who may or may not choose to consult with family (whenever possible), or clergy, or counselors, or even God. But we have no right to legislate such behavior. The idea that that government, church, synagogue, or mosque should be placed in the position of legislating or interfering in the most intimate aspects of our lives is antithetical to the foundation of the separation of religion and state upon which our nation was founded and for which too many have died.

Today, in the face of yet another attack on reproductive rights that threatens the rights and health of families like ours, Sue and I have once again chosen to share our story.

We share our story because we are disgusted by the hypocrisy that we witness on a daily basis that justifies the creation of laws that, on the one hand, prohibit a woman from terminating an unwanted pregnancy, and on the other hand, make it difficult for that same woman to receive proper health care, nutrition or childcare once that unwanted pregnancy comes to term.

We share our story because we all have listened to the stories of those who, not so long ago, have had to resort to desperate measures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

We share our story because we are disgusted at the misogyny and gaslighting that is the bedrock of this and other laws that attempt to silence women’s voices and marginalize their experience. The Texas law penalizes women for taking their reproductive health into their own hands. It says nothing about the responsibilities of the men who are responsible for every pregnancy.

This law, and others like it, serve the function of shifting attention from the real issues that plague us by claiming to have a singular understanding of God’s will. We – as people of faith who stand as a beacon of hope and reason in the face of darkness and disinformation – must never waiver in our work. No one knows the mind of God. No one has a monopoly on faith.

Nitzavim means “standing tall.” When we stand together, we are strong. We need to tell the stories of triumph over tragedy – of how we can work together to eradicate ignorance and prejudice and, in the process of doing so, forge a unified partnership with one another and our Creator to repair our fragile and wounded world.

We now enter into a new year – a year that will be filled with both hope and uncertainty. May the coming year, 5782, bring us the strength to address the injustices and challenges that plague us.

About the Author
Joe Black serves as Sr. Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, a large Reform synagogue in Denver, Colorado. He also is a husband, a father, a musician, a limericker and a skier. You can follow Rabbi Black's congregational blog at http://rabbijoeblack.blogspot.com/ You also can find out more about his music at www.Rabbijoeblack.com Rabbi Black's latest book - There Once Was A Man From Canaan: The Five Books Of Limerick - is available at www.the5booksoflimerick.com
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