No Concessions on Sabbath Desecration

The Shabbat law was supposed to be discussed in the ministerial legislative committee and in the Knesset this week. These discussions were postponed for two weeks due to the Labor Party Central Committee meeting on Sunday. But conversations this week have shown that when the law comes up for debate, its chances of passing are negligible.

Shas chair Eli Yishai is opposed to the bill, although it is seemingly aimed at cutting down the desecration of the Sabbath. Shas' coalition agreement states religious legislation will not be passed without the ultra-Orthodox party's agreement. Shas has even started making coalition crisis noises, but it is unlikely anyone would even try to pass the law against its will.

At present, a large part of the commercial, entertainment and cultural activity that takes place on Shabbat is unlawful or somewhere in the gray area. The Shabbat law proposes a deal whereby commerce on Shabbat would be outlawed while cultural and entertainment activity would be permitted. In addition, public transportation would operate on a limited scale. The law appears to contain numerous concessions from the secular public in return for symbolic concessions by the religious public. The law is being promoted by a number of Knesset factions. MK Natan Sharansky of the Likud wants to see it presented for at least a preliminary reading before he retires from the Knesset.

Yishai told Haaretz this week that he does not believe it would be possible to close down the shopping centers, and that the deal is a "trick." He explains that commerce on Shabbat is currently illegal. "How will the new law be better than the one that already exists? No court would close down the shopping centers. It would be a declarative law, but nothing would happen on the ground," he says.

On the other hand, the agreement to allow public transportation on Shabbat would step up the level of desecration. He fears that the moment public transportation is partially allowed, there will be no controlling the matter, resulting in full operation of public transportation, as occurred with commerce.

Yishai says Shas cannot agree "to pass a law in the only Jewish state in the world that would sanction desecration of the Sabbath. That would be madness." That is his view - even if the law were to succeed in actually reducing desecration.

Legalizing abortion

What does a married woman who wants to legally end her pregnancy do? She tells the abortion committee that the pregnancy is the result of an extramarital affair. Otherwise, her only option is an illegal abortion, which can cost between NIS 6,000 to 10,000. This is apparently the reason why 52.5 percent of the approvals the committee granted in 2004 were under article 2 of the law - pregnancy resulting from extramarital relations or relations prohibited by the criminal code.

A paper prepared by Yonatan Erlich, a member of the Knesset's economic team and Research and Information Center, provides a list of interesting figures on abortions in Israel. The main purpose of the paper, however, which was prepared at the request of Meretz MK Zahava Gal-On, is to calculate how much it would cost to carry out all the approved abortions at the state's expense. Apparently, if the committee authorizes an abortion for medical reasons (health, age, a defective fetus), the HMOs cover the cost; but if the abortion is carried out due to article 2, the woman pays for it out of her own pocket.

The cost, Erlich calculated, would not be particularly high: at most, NIS 13 million annually, at 10,500 abortions times NIS 1,200 each. If some of the women were to have the abortion performed at a private hospital, the cost could be even lower.

The Knesset research and information center was established a few years ago by then-Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg in order to help MKs obtain information from government ministries. Its specialties include comparing the situation in Israel to that in other countries and calculating how much laws will cost.

Last August, Gal-On presented a draft bill aimed at doing away with the abortion committee and having all abortions covered by the health basket. The proposal was rejected due to opposition within the coalition. Gal-On asked for the paper in the context of this battle. She claims that women should be allowed to go to their gynecologist for abortions, just as a person with an ingrown toenail goes to a surgeon. This, she says, is the only way allow women to fully realize their rights over their own bodies. If Gal-On's proposal is accepted, more women are likely to request legal abortions. In that case, about NIS 1.2 million should be budgeted for every thousand additional abortions.

One out of eight

Last August, the Central Bureau of Statistics published its annual survey on abortions. The average proportion of (legal) abortions out of the total number of (known) pregnancies in Israel is about 12 percent, that is, one out of every eight pregnancies ends in abortion. This number has remained stable since the mid-1990s. That is the median in the Western world: It is lower than the abortion rate in Australia (20 percent) and Canada (15 percent), but higher than in Holland (9 percent) and Germany (8 percent).

In 2004, 19,712 women appealed to the committee to end their pregnancies, and 99 percent of the appeals were approved. The reason for the high percentage is that women with poor chances (those who do not meet the criteria and are unwilling to lie) do not generally come to the committees in the first place. There is no reliable estimate for how many illegal abortions are conducted in Israel, but the Health Ministry estimates the number is almost equal to the number of legal ones. It can therefore be assumed that over the last decade, about 350,000 abortions were carried out in Israel, of which 180,000 were legal.

Close to 20 percent of the abortions were approved because of a perceived danger to the mother's health, 17 percent because of a defective fetus, and 11 percent because of the woman's age (over 40 or below 17). About 850 abortions were approved because the mother was under age 17.