13 Questions on Israel’s Softer New Abortion Rules

Women won’t have to appear before a special committee, a sometimes humiliating experience. Plus hospitals won’t be the only venues, and intrusive questions will be dropped

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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Abortion rights protesters in Los Angeles on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
Abortion rights protesters in Los Angeles on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.Credit: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

On Monday, the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee approved changes to Israel’s criminal code on abortions. The new rules, installed just before the dissolution of the Knesset in the run-up to a general election this fall, came at the initiative of three politicians from the left-wing Meretz party: Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and legislators Gaby Lasky and Michal Rozin.

The new regulations don’t change policy or legal principles, but they make the abortion process easier for many woman. They come after decades of stasis in this realm, despite the many complaints.

When will the new regulations take effect?

In three months.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaking at the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee on Monday.Credit: Emil Salman

Is this a major policy change?

No. This is not the amending of a law or the changing of basic principles. The concept remains the same: Every pregnancy is to be carried to term unless it meets one of the criteria set by the state. An abortion still needs the approval of a hospital-based committee of two doctors and a social worker.

What are the criteria allowing an abortion?

An abortion is allowed when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, when the pregnancy could endanger the woman’s life or cause her physical or psychological harm, when the woman is not married or her husband is not the father, when the fetus could have physical or psychological defects, or when the woman is under 18 or 40 or over.

What’s the big change?

It will be possible to forgo the appearance before the committee, an experience that some women find humiliating. Applicants will simply fill out a questionnaire – but will be able to appear before the committee if they wish.

Are all women seeking an abortion exempt from appearing before the committee?

Yes, it doesn’t matter how advanced the pregnancy is or the type of abortion: medical (drug-induced) or surgical. This will apply to over 17,000 women a year, based on figures from recent years.

Boxes of the mifepristone abortion drug at a clinic in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in March.Credit: Allen G. Breed/AP

What do the new regulations say about drug-induced abortions?

They allow an abortion using prescription drugs at Israel’s four health maintenance organizations until the 12th week of pregnancy. Under the current rules, this procedure is allowed only at hospitals or recognized private clinics that provide it as part of outpatient services.

The new regulations refer to the first trimester – 12 weeks – but in practice a drug-induced abortion can be done until the ninth week – until 63 days after the woman’s last period.

Are there other changes regarding the committee?

One is the canceling of a meeting with a social worker. Today, after this meeting, the social worker writes a review that’s sent to the committee.

A woman will still be able to meet with a social worker beforehand, and this will be reported to the committee. But the social worker will submit a report, not an official review.

What’s the difference?

The Health Ministry says an official review can be used against women in any divorce or custody proceedings in the future.

A sonographer and a doctor performing ultrasound on a patient from Texas before her surgical abortion in Oklahoma City last December.Credit: Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

Why the changes regarding medical abortions?

The idea is to make the process more accessible – not just at hospitals but also at many other clinics around the country. Also, women will have to wait less time; in some cases they’ve had to wait more than two weeks for an outpatient appointment at a hospital.

How many women will be affected by the new rules on medical abortions?

Thousands a year. Most abortions in Israel happen during the first weeks of pregnancy. In 2020, 6,734 drug-induced abortions were performed – 55 percent of all abortions until the ninth week of pregnancy.

Will there be any changes to the questionnaire?

Irrelevant intrusive questions will be dropped. It will also be possible to fill out the form digitally. The new form will have a section where the woman can explain her request, and a section where the committee members must explain their decision.

Which questions will be removed?

Questions about the woman’s obstetric history, how many children she has, under what circumstances she got pregnant, whether she used birth control and if so what method or methods – or why didn’t she use any. The new form will thus be much shorter. Certain questions will be optional, such as whether the abortion is the woman’s first.

What about issues of the woman’s obstetric history that could be medically relevant to the abortion?

These questions will be asked by the doctor who will perform the abortion, after the approval of the request and procedure.

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