As U.S. Losses Roe v. Wade, Israeli Election Stalls Abortion Laws Reform

Efforts by Israel's Health Ministry to reform the country's abortion rules look set to fail due to the dissolution of the Knesset. Lawmakers warn of greater, not fewer, restrictions if religious parties are in the next government

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A protest in Los Angeles following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on abortion.
A protest in Los Angeles following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on abortion.Credit: Keith Birmingham /AP

Reforms to Israel’s abortion policy, which would allow women to freely terminate a pregnancy in the first 12 weeks by eliminating intrusive government approval committees, hit a daunting roadblock this week.

Unlike in the United States, the biggest obstacle to the push for more reproductive freedom in Israel was not the courts but the imminent dissolution of the Knesset, and the end of the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

“It’s a missed opportunity,” said Meretz lawmaker Michal Rozin, a co-sponsor of legislation designed to free Israeli women from the requirement to receive approval from a three-person state committee before accessing abortion services in their first two trimesters of pregnancy.

Last December, when the U.S. Supreme Court was debating the Dobbs case that led to the June 24 overturning of Roe v. Wade, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and members of his Meretz party – Rozin and lawmaker Gaby Lasky – announced their intention to radically reform what they described as a “chauvinistic” and “oppressive” abortion process.

In Israel, all women seeking abortions are legally required to receive authorization from state-run committees.

Approval is automatic for those who are unmarried; under 18 or over 40; or in cases of rape, incest, diagnosed birth defects in the fetus or a life-threatening condition for the mother. For married women aged 18-40, receiving approval requires telling the committee that the baby they are carrying is not their husband’s or demonstrating in some other way that carrying their pregnancy to term will put their mental health and the stability of their family at risk.

While whatever reason these married women submit is accepted by the committee in nearly every case, and they are approved for an abortion – committee approval rates have been estimated as high as 99 percent – many women report that the process is unnecessarily time-consuming and degrading. They are unhappy that they are often required to lie in order to receive permission to end their pregnancies.

In the winter Knesset session, Lasky and Rozin submitted their bill that would allow all women to abort until the 12th week of pregnancy without committee approval. From the 12th to the 23rd week, the services of the committees would be voluntary – recommended in order to guide women through the more difficult procedures of second-trimester pregnancy, but not mandatory. Permission would still be required for a third-trimester termination.

Meretz lawmaker Michal Rozin speaking during a Knesset committee last autumn.Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset spokesperson's office

Lasky and Rozin’s bill had been stalled in its initial stages due to the fact that it was not supported by the heads of the most religious of the coalition’s eight parties – Yamina and the United Arab List. However, Rozin had been hopeful that with continued lobbying and possible support from opposition parties, the obstacles to its passage could have been overcome.

Now, with the dissolution of the Knesset imminent, no vote will be held on the legislation and its ultimate fate is uncertain.

Speaking Sunday, Horowitz acknowledged that, “like everything else,” the abortion reform legislation would be put on hold, and could ultimately fail if a more right-wing, religious coalition is formed after the next election this fall.

He vowed to “advance regulations and laws that will allow the woman to make decisions and exercise her rights over her body” for “as long as I have authority.”

Expressing concern over the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court, Horowitz said he wanted to “do everything to make sure nothing like this happens in the State of Israel. The court’s decision is like something out of the Dark Ages. It turns the clock back 100 years.”

He added: “The fact the supposedly enlightened U.S. Supreme Court returned American women to this situation is frightening not only for people in the United States, but for the entire world. It can happen in any country … we all have to remain vigilant constantly.”

Meretz lawmaker Gaby Lasky speaking in the Knesset last February.Credit: Noam Moskowitz / Knesset Spokesperson's office

Limited changes?

Tal Hochman, director of government relations for the Israel Women’s Network, said her organization would continue the struggle for reform.

“Even now, we aren’t going to stop hoping and pushing,” she said. “The requirement for permission for an abortion by these committees represents government control of women’s bodies and our right to freedom and autonomy. We won’t stop struggling for a woman’s right to decide for herself whether she wants to raise a child or not.”

There remains a possibility that limited changes to abortion approval procedures could happen before the expected dissolution vote.

In addition to the legislative changes in the need to go before the committees, Horowitz announced last December that he would order other changes in the Health Ministry’s procedures regarding abortions: eliminating invasive questions on the application form regarding the reasons for pregnancy termination and on contraceptive use, which Horowitz declared in the past to be “degrading.”

An end was also to be put to a former ministry official's 1988 directive instructing the committees to try to prevent “unnecessary” abortions in order to improve the country’s demographics.

It was also proposed that early-stage abortions, both pharmaceutical and surgical, be transferred from hospitals to clinics run by the country’s health maintenance organizations, in order to facilitate a speedier process for a procedure where time is of the essence.

But even these changes cannot become official without approval from the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee – which will be dissolved along with the Knesset.

“We are waiting to find out if it will happen in time,” Rozin said.

But these changes, she noted, won’t alter the fundamental problem of requiring women to seek committee approval at the earliest stages of their pregnancy.

People marching in the street during a protest against the Supreme Court's ruling to overturn Roe v Wade, in Atlanta on Saturday.Credit: Elijah Nouvelage - AFP

“They can make the process less intrusive and more comfortable for women, but there are fundamental problems with the process that can only be addressed by legislation,” Rozin said. “The committee requirement forces married women to lie and say they are pregnant by another man. Later, in divorce proceedings, that could be used against her in court. There are women who, because of the bureaucratic delays, carry pregnancies that become more dangerous to terminate and keep fetuses that have already died in their bellies; you have victims of rape or incest who are forced to continue to carry the offspring of their attackers.”

Last November, Health Ministry statistics showed that 17,548 women applied to terminate their pregnancy in 2020, and 16,430 abortions were approved. The figures represented a 6.7 percent drop from the 18,816 applications in 2019, and a 5.3 percent fall in the number of approvals. The decrease, attributed to coronavirus factors, was in line with the steady decline in abortions over the last 30 years in Israel, though 2020 was unusually steep.

While committed to trying to reform the conditions of terminating pregnancies in Israel, Rozin said that when she looks at “what just happened in the United States – and I look at some of the opposition parties in Israel and the possibility that they might gain control – I focus less on hoping that things will change for the better and more on hoping that they don’t change for the worse.”

Still recognizing that the situation needs to be improved, she added: “Right now, I simply hope we can succeed in keeping things the way they are.”

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