The Supreme Court on Friday overruled Roe v. Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to abortion after almost 50 years in a decision that will have sweeping consequences on an entire generation of women in America, and which is why women’s rights groups and politicians on the left have decried the move.
But, as the US takes a large step backward in terms of protecting a woman’s bodily autonomy, in Israel the abortion process is a mixed bag from a women’s rights viewpoint. Israel stands out for both its progressive and regressive abortion policies. On the one hand, abortion remains highly accessible to most Israeli women. On the other hand, many women are compelled to lie to obtain one.
In Israel, abortion can only be legally performed under certain circumstances and with the approval of a public committee composed of two physicians, and a social worker. Permission for legal abortion can be granted when the pregnant woman is under 18 or over 40, or when the pregnancy is out of wedlock or the result of rape or incest. Health considerations relating to the pregnant woman or to expected abnormalities in fetal development constitute two additional grounds for legal abortion.
For married women who do not meet the age or the health-related criteria, it is especially difficult to have legal access to abortion. Their best chance to get a committee’s permission to terminate their undesired pregnancy is by claiming that they committed adultery, even when it is not the case. They can also claim that they are mentally unstable and therefore the continuation of the pregnancy might endanger their mental health. Once they lie about the true reasons for requesting to end an unwanted pregnancy, official approval is almost always guaranteed.
In 2020, the most recent year for which data is available, 17,548 females in Israel turned to entities known as Pregnancy Termination Committees, through which some 99% of requests for pregnancy termination were approved.
The most common reason for abortion approvals in Israel is that the pregnancy occurred out of marriage, accounting on average for a little over half of the approvals. These approvals are granted to unmarried women or to married women who claim that the pregnancy is the result of adulterous relations. Hence, while the formal letter of the law is quite restrictive in practice, legal abortion is relatively easy to obtain.
However, an attempt to evaluate abortion policies by focusing on the high percentage of Committees’ approvals of pregnancy terminations obscures part of the story. It masks the fact that for all women and especially married women, access to legal abortion in Israel comes with a heavy price tag, one which involves a procedure that undermines their human dignity, bodily integrity, and autonomy by treating them as objects and not as full subjects of rights.
The very idea that women must ask for permission to end an unwanted pregnancy and often need to present themselves as ‘mad’ or ‘bad’ in order to obtain such permission is absurd. When a pregnant woman claims she committed adultery, that declaration can come back to haunt her. In the event the couple subsequently files for a divorce, infidelity in marriage can impact rabbinical court decisions on matters such as alimony or child custody. Similarly, if the woman testifies to the abortion committee that she suffers from mental health problems as a reason for wanting the abortion, this information could be used against her in future child custody battles in family courts.
Indeed, compared to American women, Israeli women are better off in terms of the relative ease of obtaining access to abortion. As Friday’s repeal of an almost 50-year constitutional right in the US has shown, the very fact of abortion access in Israel should not be underestimated. Yet, this right-less access to abortions is made possible only because of the commitment of the medical community to provide a proper response to women’s reproductive needs. In this respect, Israel stands unique when compared to other countries with regard to its medical community, which appears to be largely committed to implementing the country’s restrictive and illiberal abortion legislation in a manner that at least guarantees access to safe abortions in public hospitals. At the same time, access to abortion that is not rationalized by a concept of rights, and which ignores the idea that a woman should be entitled to govern her own body, results in other problematic consequences for women. The Pregnancy Termination Committees can make access to safe abortions possible, but they cannot undo the shame and degradation that are inherent to the procedure.
At the University of Haifa Faculty of Law, I often speak with and encounter women who must go before the Pregnancy Termination Committees and their stories are unsettling. From a woman in the midst of a broken marriage who had to falsely claim she was an adulterer, to a scared 15-year-old rape victim needing to recount her trauma in front of the Pregnancy Termination Committees, these are examples of women who are being violated during an extremely vulnerable time in their lives.
The right to abortion is the cornerstone of human dignity, bodily autonomy, and liberty. A woman who is not entitled to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy does not have full rights – her status is, in effect, that of quasi-human. If Israel truly wants its abortion law to reflect the values of the 21st century, it needs to eliminate termination committees that act as gatekeepers to a woman’s fundamental right to have full control over her body and reproductive fate.