Women’s Groups in Israel Sound Alarm After Abortions Not Deemed Urgent Procedure

Coronavirus risks lead to cancellation of most procedures planned in hospitals, except for a list of exceptions that doesn’t include abortions ■ Health Ministry: Abortions continuing in hospitals and clinics

A doctor examines a patient with coronavirus symptoms, March 9, 2020
Rami Shllush

In preparation for treating coronavirus patients, the Health Ministry has canceled all but urgent scheduled health procedures from the beginning of the week. Exceptions were made for procedures such as oncology treatments and operations, urgent vascular surgery, dialysis, catheterization and medical imaging. In vitro fertility treatments are also continuing, especially for women who have already started them.

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But termination of pregnancy does not appear on the list of exceptions the ministry issued to hospitals. Currently about 60 percent of abortions are carried out in hospitals and 40 percent are done in private surgical clinics. In a letter to the Heath Ministry’s management, a large number of women’s organizations and public health professionals warn that if women are not given the right to terminate a pregnancy, they may have to undergo a dangerous underground abortion.

“Termination of a pregnancy is not a procedure that can be delayed, and violating the right to accessible and safe abortions could very well cause women to act out of despair in ways that could endanger them,” states the letter.

The letter was signed by the Israel Women’s Network; Isha L’Isha – Haifa Feminist Center, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel; Women and their Bodies; Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, the head of the school of public health at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and others.

“We were shocked to discover that planned terminations of pregnancy are not included in the list of procedures exempted by the Health Ministry,” the letter says. “From conversations we have held with some of the hospitals, it seems that the hospitals are deciding on their own, within local committees in every hospital, whether and how much to restrict and even cancel the operations of the committees for pregnancy termination, and performing pregnancy termination in practice.”

Abortions in Israel require the approval of a pregnancy terminations committee. Almost all women are granted approval, after which the procedure is carried out surgically or medicinally, depending on the circumstances.

The organizations wrote in the letter that although hospital visits should be limited since they are defined as places where one is at risk of getting infected, “planned terminations of pregnancy are an essential medical treatment for women who need it ... We must protect those women so they can receive this essential service, despite the current situation.”

In their letter, the women’s groups propose a new format for abortions that would “reduce the use of manpower of the hospitals and move them to the community, and in doing so reduce the burden on the hospitals and limit the health risk for women and the medical staff.”

Their proposal is to hold the termination committee sessions at health maintenance organization facilities, conduct them without the woman, who would be represented by a social worker, or to do away with them altogether. Another idea they put forward is to perform medical abortions, where medicine is used to terminate the pregnancy – a procedure that can be done until the ninth week – at the HMO’s women’s health centers.

The Health Ministry said that “in general hospitals, it is possible to continue [performing pregnancy terminations], subject to the hospital’s exceptions committee. Surgical clinics are continuing [to perform] abortions. Minors will be able to get abortions at sites that have not yet been approved, and which will receive temporary recognition for two months.”