Israel Must Allow Women to Have an Abortion Without the Need for Government Approval

The reality dictated by Israeli law has got the point of departure backwards: Abortion is forbidden and any doctor who performs one without the approval of a public commission is committing a crime.

'A woman seeking an abortion is often anxious and under stress, with some women dealing with it on their own.'
Matthew Busch, Bloomberg

A woman’s right to an abortion is first and foremost a matter of her right to her own body. A woman has the right to decide whether to become pregnant and whether to continue to be pregnant. The reality dictated by Israeli law has got the point of departure backwards: Abortion is forbidden and any doctor who performs one without the approval of a public commission is committing a crime. The commission may permit an abortion on the basis of narrow and limited criteria: The woman’s age (beneath legal matrimonial age or above 40), if the pregnancy is due to extramarital relations, if the pregnancy is a result of sexual relations committed as part of a crime, incest, if there is a risk of deformity in the infant or if the pregnancy will endanger the woman’s life or cause her either bodily or psychological harm.

A fifth clause of the abortion law, known as the social clause once permitted cessation of a pregnancy in cases in which its continuation may have hurt the woman or her children for reasons of family or social conditions. But this clause was revoked in 1979, as part of a coalition agreement between the Likud and ultra-Orthodox parties.

As reported in Haaretz (Hebrew), a large number of women seeking abortions do so for the reasons once permitted under that defunct social clause. A woman seeking an abortion is in essence now forced to lie to the commission in order to meet at least one of its criteria. Women who make up stories to meet with such criteria, such as saying that theirs is a “pregnancy from external marital relations” can receive the commission’s approval, while women who provide other logical reasons to end a pregnancy, but which do not meet with the reasons cited above, are at risk of having their requests rejected.

The commission approves 98 percent of requests but the data doesn’t include those women who don’t apply to it and instead have abortions performed on the black market. Nor does it include the women who wind up giving birth against their will. The data also does not reflect the humiliation felt by women forced to appear before a commission and make up stories about intimate matters, as the only recourse for fulfilling the right to a legal abortion. While revoking the social clause was an injustice, restoring it wouldn’t go far enough.

Legislation must be passed that would allow women to have an abortion under their own free will and by choice, without the need for government approval, at least at the early stages of a pregnancy. A bill in this regard, drawn up by women legal experts and already introduced to the Knesset, is aimed at ensuring this by permitting a woman to have an abortion until the 13th week, without the approval of a commission. Under this legislation, commission approval would only be necessary for abortions done between the 13th and 23rd weeks, and on the basis of broader reasons than currently permitted. From the 24th week an abortion would also be permitted, but on the basis of narrower criteria. The Knesset ought to pass this or similar legislation which recognize a woman’s fundamental right to her body.