Shhh! Don’t Tell Evangelical Supporters of Israel, but Abortion There Is Legal — and Often It’s Free

Neither religious conservatives nor liberal feminists are completely satisfied with the status quo in the Jewish state, but the current system allows some 40,000 women to have abortions annually

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Israeli abortion panels, illustration.
Israeli abortion panels, illustration.Credit: Sharona Gonen

For Israelis, the affinity of President Donald Trump’s evangelical supporters for the Jewish state has been a bonanza. From the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Golan Heights as being under Israeli sovereignty and refraining from condemnation of any Israeli military action, the White House has been the gift that keeps on giving. And credit for that is widely acknowledged to be his desire to please his staunchly pro-Israel Christian base.

However, while Israel and the Christian right may be in harmony on U.S. foreign policy, Israeli attitudes and the country’s laws radically diverge from evangelical beliefs on the issue that matters most to hard-line conservative Republicans: abortion.

Extremely restrictive new state laws have ignited a new firestorm of controversy over abortion in the United States. But in Israel — a country where almost everything is arguable, and argued about — abortion laws remain surprisingly, consistently liberal and uncontroversial.

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Credit: Haaretz

Israeli abortion law has something for everyone: A semblance of regulation for conservatives, but a reality in which almost any woman who wants an abortion is able to have one — and an estimated 40,000 Israeli women annually have them.

For an Israeli woman who wishes to end a pregnancy, the process is not only legal but is usually heavily subsidized or free, covered under Israel’s national health care system.

The existing abortion law was passed in 1977. Under the law, the procedure is fully legal under any of the following conditions:

* The pregnant woman in question is under 18 or over 40
* The woman is not married
* The fetus has a serious mental or physical defect
* The pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or adultery
* If carrying the pregnancy to term “is liable to endanger the woman’s life or cause her physical or emotional damage”

A separate committee exists for late-term abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy.

For teenagers and soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces, abortions are fully funded by the state. And in a revision of the national health coverage law in 2014, abortions became free to all women between 20 and 33 regardless of their circumstances, in order to help young women who cannot afford to pay even a heavily subsidized fee for the procedure.

In practice, this means that legal abortion is easy to obtain at no cost except for those who are married and are of standard childbearing age — between 18 and 40.

But even though abortion is legal and often free, this does not mean the state gives all Israeli women the right to choose.

Any healthy married woman between 18-40 who wants a free or heavily subsidized abortion in a public facility must face a pregnancy termination committee — composed of social workers and doctors — giving them justifications for the decision in order to have the abortion approved.

Often, women resort to white lies in order to meet the official criteria, saying they are mentally unstable or that the husband is not the father of the child, even when it is not the case.

A study by the Central Bureau of Statistics examining all abortions in Israel in 2016 found that 9 percent of pregnancies in Israel are legally terminated. That year, 18,032 women applied for approval to abortion committees to end their pregnancies; of those, 92.3 percent were approved. Nearly half of these women told the committee they had been impregnated by a man they were not married to.

Longer-term studies have found that the approval rate is even higher than 92 percent, with more than 96 percent of women’s applications approved.

The 2016 study did not account for the women who opt for private abortions, thus avoiding the committee process. If a woman has several hundred dollars, obtaining a private abortion in a doctor’s clinic rather than a public hospital is the more efficient route. Though technically such physicians are breaking the law, the practice is common and widespread, allowing any woman — regardless of her marital status, age or personal situation — to obtain an abortion discreetly and far more quickly than the official process. No doctor has ever been prosecuted for doing so.

The strongest evidence that the Israeli public, and its political and religious leadership, is essentially content with the current arrangement is the fact that any attempts to challenge or change it have met with widespread opposition.

Such attempts to rock the boat have been few and far between: The last time a serious attempt was made to change the status quo was in 2006, when a bill introduced by then-Meretz MK Zehava Galon — which would have eliminated the abortion termination committees — was soundly defeated by an overwhelming majority.

Then-Health Minister Jacob Edery said the government, led at the time by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, opposed the bill because it did not believe “now is the time to reopen this complicated and problematic discussion. We must remember that the termination of pregnancy is a complicated and sensitive social issue, and every change is a change in the status quo between different worldviews.”

In 2013, when Israel’s two chief rabbis issued a letter in support of an antiabortion organization called Efrat, saying they wanted to make “the wider public aware of the extreme seriousness involved in killing fetuses, which is like actual murder,” the backlash was fierce — not only from feminists and the left, but from some of their fellow Orthodox rabbis. One leading rabbi, Benny Lau, sharply criticized the declaration.

"The statement ‘Abortion is murder’ is not legitimate. I understand the motivation to fight against extreme liberalism, but a lack of balance is very dangerous to the social structure,” he said. “A religious society is obligated to take things in a balanced way. The Efrat association does not have this balance; there is no balance. Taking our Torah in the direction of Christian Catholic canon law is a terrible mistake.”

For the entire past decade of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s domination of government, abortion laws have remained untouched. In 2017, a proposal was floated that would change the status quo and invite religious input into abortion committee decisions. The reaction was fierce: Female legislators denounced it in the Knesset, women took to social media calling for rabbis to be “kept out of our uterus!” and the proposal died a swift death.

To be sure, neither religious conservatives nor liberal feminists are completely satisfied with the status quo. Jewish and Muslim clerics don’t want abortion banned outright — neither religion forbids it — but they surely wish the committees weren’t so liberal in permitting abortions or that they weren’t so commonly obtained.

And women’s advocates who believe in autonomy over their own bodies would clearly prefer it if the abortion panels didn’t exist at all. Feminists regularly decry them: Back in 2017 Galon called them a “black, shameful stain on Israeli society.”

Dr. Adi Niv-Yagoda, an attorney specializing in medical law and health policy, told Haaretz last year that the existing law requiring women to face abortion committees “provides for a draconian and unreasonable arrangement that creates the need to lie in order for a woman to have the right to autonomy over her own body.

In a 2015 New York Times opinion piece, Mairav Zonszein described her feelings as she anticipated appearing before such a committee.

“As I waited to register, it began to sink in,” she wrote. “I had no control, no privacy and no anonymity over this intimate, difficult matter pertaining strictly to my own body. The idea that anyone but me had the power to decide my family’s fate and mine was harrowing. Israel’s abortion policy, it hit me, was the opposite of liberal.”

Because Zonszein and her partner were not married, her request, as woman who was technically single, was easily granted.

“There were no medical questions or examinations, no offers of information or assistance. It was cold, efficient bureaucracy. A nurse administered the abortion medically the next day.”

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