Abortions in Israel: Time to Finally Abort Pregnancy-termination Committees?

How Israel’s abortion law compares to other countries, and why the current political environment may be ripe for reform. Part two of a two-part series.

As my previous blog on abortions in Israel showed, Israel's abortion law is not as liberal as some wishfully think. But the questions remain: how does Israel compare to other countries, and has the time come to change the status quo?

As for whether Israel is more or less liberal, the answer, in short, is that Israel lies somewhere in the middle.

It is nowhere near as restrictive as the seven countries that ban abortion altogether, even when the life of the woman is at risk. Nor is it as restrictive as countries like Ireland that only allow abortion to save the woman’s life. Mara Klein Clarke, who directs the U.K.-based Abortion Support Network, told me Ireland is “pretty horrific, both North and South … women are seldom allowed to obtain abortions.” As a result, she says, “We’ve heard from women who have thrown themselves down flights of stairs, drunk bleach, chased packages of birth control pills down with bottles of vodka and gin. And this is in 2013/2014 in the supposedly developed world.”

Evidently the abortion situation in Israel could be much worse.

But, equally, it could be much better. In the United Kingdom (aside from Northern Ireland) abortion is free on the National Health Service and legal up to 24 weeks. Although there is a postcode lottery of provision and a paternalistic mandate that two doctors need to sign off on the abortion, this is largely a formality and certainly a far cry from Israel’s Orwellian three-person pregnancy-termination committee. Meanwhile, Canada has done away with restricting abortions altogether, and simply considers abortion a “medically necessary” service.

So Israel’s abortion provision sits between these two poles. “On the one hand, women really can’t make the choice for themselves here. They need to get approval from a committee. On the other hand, Israel is not one of those countries where there’s a complete ban on abortion,” explains Rivka Neumann of the Women's International Zionist Organization. Political scientist Yael Yishai categorizes Israel as an “intrusive” state that “limits individual discretion but is committed to implementing authorized (that is, legal), abortions.”

The question, then, is what accounts for Israel’s intrusion into women’s wombs?

My research (summarized here) suggests that Israel’s approach to abortion is the outcome of a complex interplay between various factors and actors. On the one hand there are those who have opposed abortion for either religio-moral or demographic reasons, while on the other hand have been those concerned about the implications for women’s health and welfare of restrictions on access to abortion, as well as feminists resisting attempts to render women’s wombs national vessels.

Historically, those opposed to abortion on demographic grounds feared that freer access would decrease the Jewish birth rate and in turn Israel’s Jewish majority. David Ben-Gurion was especially anxious about low Jewish fertility, and wrote in Haaretz in 1967, “The increase of the Jewish birthrate is not an imperialistic need, but rather an essential component of the survival of the [Jewish] people … Any woman who does not have four children as much as it depends on her is betraying the Jewish mission.” Linking abortion to the “demographic danger” became most vivid and vocal during the 1975 Knesset debate on abortion law reform. Feminist former MK Marcia Freedman recalls in her memoir that MKs opposing abortion shouted statements like, “tens of millions of Arabs, who are fruitful and multiply, surround our borders” and “Has Arafat given his consent to this law?”

Yet pro-natalist opposition to abortion has been resisted by those concerned with the negative repercussions for women of restrictions on access to abortion. Former MK Haviv Shimony, who submitted the successful abortion law reform bill in 1975, explained at the time that whilst the future of Israel depended on both immigration and natural increase, “these foundations are completed by the concern for the physical and emotional health of our people gathering in the country … Imposing the burden of a multitude of children on weak social groups from the financial, educational and mental points of view will only destroy the families and the society.” Others, like Freedman, went further, stressing the inalienable right of women to control their own bodies.

The outcome of these historic struggles – which I call a “war of the wombs” – is that abortion in Israel became widely available, yet legally restricted.

Has the time come to change the status quo? In order to answer that, we must first understand whether the power of the religious and nationalist forces opposed to liberalizing abortion has weakened enough to enable such a change.

Opinion on this is divided.

Some fear that religious and nationalist forces remain powerful within Israel, and worry that opening a new chapter in this war of the wombs could generate a counterproductive conservative backlash. The recent health-basket reform resulted in a funding victory, but before hastily moving onto the next stage of liberalizing abortion in Israel, they urge patience and caution. “We need to let things permeate,” Orly Hasson-Tsitsuashvilli, the Executive Director of Ladaat, a family planning education and counseling center in Jerusalem, told me. She says the health-basket reform “raised a storm and raised opposite opinions to the surface.” As such, she says ”We need a bit of time before we take the next big step.”

Others are more optimistic. Meretz chairwoman MK Zehava Gal-On has submitted a bill to the Knesset calling for the abolition of the termination committees. “The law should be changed and the committees should be stopped so that each woman can decide for herself if she would like to have an abortion or not … The bill that I have submitted will most definitely give the women control back over their lives and reproduction systems,” she told me. A recent editorial in Haaretz echoed Gal-On’s demands, stressing that “Lawmakers must act to change the abortion committees’ criteria and to ensure that Israeli policy matches that of most Western nations. Every woman must be given the freedom to choose.”

There are some indications that proposing such reforms could be successful. The health-basket committee unanimously supported expanding the funding of legal abortions, the Cabinet quickly approved their recommendation, and there are no ultra-Orthodox political parties in the current coalition to obstruct abortion reform. It is also doubtful that demographic fears linking access to abortion to the security of the Jewish majority are anywhere near as potent as in the past. Most encouragingly, during last week’s hearing on abolishing the termination committees, organized by the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women, consensus was reached that “until the 12th week, we don't need the committee,” according to Hasson-Tsistuashvilli, who attended the hearing. Even Dr Eli Schussheim, the Director of the anti-abortion organization Efrat, agrees, and has now argued in favor of abolishing the committees. Consequently, Gal-On told me that she is “very hopeful that we will be able to pass it (her bill) within the next parliamentary session.”

So perhaps this is an opportune moment to push for abortion law reform. After all, isn’t it high time to let women in Israel finally decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies?

In her last blog post, Dr. Rebecca Steinfeld explained that Israel’s recent health-basket reform may make abortions more affordable, but hardly more accessible. Steinfeld is a Visiting Scholar in the Department of History at Stanford University, and a BBC New Generation Thinker. She researches the history and politics of reproduction in Israel. She tweets @beccasteinfeld
 

Illustration by Ayala Tal