NEW YORK – Access to abortion in the United States has become more limited in recent years, increasingly restricted by state laws even though it became a constitutionally protected right in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade 45 years ago.
At the forefront of countering that trend is a little-known network of volunteers, many of them Jewish women, who are motivated by their faith and commitment to the idea that women need to be able to control their own reproductive choices.
These volunteers help women living in states where they can no longer obtain abortions, escorting them to and from clinics, housing and feeding them while they visit their cities, and providing overall support. With the recent increase of abortion-restricting laws, demand for their services has grown, they say.
Now, with Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court and the potential overturning of the legal right to abortion a likely legal battle, they are preparing to work with even more women.
According to most interpretations, Judaism views abortion differently than Catholicism or conservative evangelical Christianity, which both consider conception the start of full personhood. In contrast, that status isn’t conferred until a baby has begun to emerge, according to many decisors of Jewish law.
This, coupled with American Judaism’s history of engagement with social justice issues, may be why most – though not all – abortion-access support groups in the United States were started and are run by non-Orthodox Jewish women, activists say. And while midwives have no doubt always helped friends and family members end pregnancies when needed, the creator of the first organized abortion-access network in America was a Jewish woman: Heather Booth.
Booth was a student at the University of Chicago in 1965 and active in the civil rights and nascent feminist movements when a friend asked her for help. His sister was pregnant and didn’t know where to obtain an abortion. Booth contacted a doctor active in civil rights, who agreed to do it. Soon, a steady stream of women was calling the phone in Booth’s dorm, she recalls. She named her effort the Jane Collective, so callers could simply ask for “Jane.” Many of the collective’s members were Jews, since “the early women’s movement was disproportionately Jewish, as was the civil rights movement,” recounts Booth. The collective disbanded in 1973 after the Supreme Court made abortion legal nationwide.
Today, Mirah Curzer does similar work. She is a Brooklyn-based attorney who specializes in white-collar criminal defense and is pregnant with her first child. She is also married to a Reform rabbi and co-chairs the New York Bar Association’s Sex and Law Committee. She volunteers with the Haven Coalition, escorting and hosting women who come to New York for abortions (where abortion is legal within the first 24 weeks).
“We’ve had people come from Alabama, Georgia and Texas,” says Curzer, citing states where abortion laws are especially restrictive. It is usually “people within driving or train distance, but we have people fly to be here,” she adds, often because they need an abortion past 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Frequently, she says, the recipients of Haven Coalition’s help are teenagers. The youngest she has helped was a 15-year-old from Florida. “She told her mother [about her pregnancy], who threw her out of the house. She had been planning to have the baby, but was now going to be homeless and decided she couldn’t have the baby.
“That’s not atypical,” continues Curzer. “She was toward the cutoff, 23 weeks. She had taken the bus from Florida alone.”
Pregnant women fly from all over the country into Maryland, where elective abortion is legal until 28 weeks, says Carly Manes, who grew up in a Reform temple-affiliated Jewish family in Los Angeles. Earlier this year, she started an as-yet unnamed network of some 50 abortion-escorting volunteers in the Washington area.
“Last week we had someone from Florida and someone from Georgia; this week someone is coming from New York. We have a lot of folks coming from the south in general,” says Manes. “Abortion there is much more restricted and, even if it isn’t illegal, there are no accessible clinics.” Her group has assisted patients ranging from a 14-year-old girl who traveled with a parent to a woman in her 40s who already had several children, she says.
Leah Greenblum was inspired to start the Midwest Access Coalition by her grandmother – a Holocaust survivor who, a mother of three in 1958, had an illegal abortion in New York City. “She was able to obtain an abortion because she had the means,” says Greenblum, who grew up involved with Jewish youth groups and going to a Conservative synagogue.
She now lives in Chicago, where she works for the Jewish social justice group Avodah as its community director. Greenblum started MAC in 2014 because, she says, “all people should have access to basic health care and things that will help them live with dignity.”
Last year, MAC helped 165 women by paying transportation costs from rural areas in surrounding states to Chicago, driving them to and from train stations, airports and clinics, and hosting them in volunteers’ homes. They even buy women warm clothes if they arrive in Chicago unequipped for wintry weather, says Greenblum.
“We have had lots of folks come from Kentucky, South Dakota, and a ton of people coming from Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio,” where abortion is far more restricted, she says. Iowa recently passed a law prohibiting abortion after about six weeks’ gestation – which is “basically an abortion ban,” says Greenblum, since many women aren’t aware they are even pregnant before seven or eight weeks.
Abortion is legal in Illinois within 24 weeks, says Greenblum. There are times when women arrive believing they are within that window, but when examined discover they are 24 weeks along. Then they decide to go to Maryland, she adds.
The rabbis' views
The disproportionate number of Jewish women involved in grassroots networks may be partly rooted in the way some say Judaism views abortion and women’s physical autonomy.
In Jewish classical texts, “abortion is neither murder nor manslaughter. Therefore, it is in a moral category that is completely different than the way the Catholic Church and some evangelicals view the question,” says Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, a Washington-based organization focused on protecting religious faith and freedom.
Two almost identical biblical passages are the basis of Jewish law’s view, he says – one in Exodus and the other in Deuteronomy. In each passage, two men are in a physical altercation and accidentally shove a pregnant woman, who then loses the pregnancy. “The penalty for that is a fine,” says Moline, “putting it in a different moral category than murder or manslaughter.” In Jewish law, “the consequence for murder is execution. The punishment for manslaughter is exile to a city of refuge. But here the consequence is a fine.
“There is significant information in Mishna and Gemara, and in the work of Maimonides, in which a threat to the life and well-being of the mother by the fetus requires the termination of the pregnancy, even up until the moment of birth,” explains Moline. “That’s later than even the most progressive abortion advocates would call for” today.
That is liberal Judaism’s perspective on abortion, but of course not everyone agrees. Rabbi David Novak is vice president of the Union for Traditional Judaism and the Jewish Pro-Life Foundation. The “position of the tradition is that abortion is prohibited unless the fetus is a threat to the life of the mother, which is extremely, extremely rare these days with prenatal care,” says Novak. “The only basis of dispute is how widely or narrowly does one interpret a threat to the mother’s life.”
Novak dismissed Moline’s reasoning, saying that Jewish legal norms are not derived from the punishments dealt to those who deviate from them. Of the volunteers who say their work is rooted in their Jewish values, Novak says, “Clearly, liberalism has become their religion and it’s not based on the Jewish perspective.”
Overall, the U.S. abortion rate is decreasing – it went down 14 percent between 2010 and 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization focused on reproductive health and rights.
But a growing number of women are asking for help from these grassroots networks because the increasing state-implemented restrictions mean that more women are further along in their pregnancy before they are able to seek abortion.
Greenblum anticipates that MAC will work with about 200 women in 2018. “Demand is increasing,” she says. Washington’s Manes agrees. Her volunteers have assisted 35 women since the start of 2018, but eight in the past month alone.
A majority of the women they help are poor. An abortion at 27 weeks costs at least $7,000, says Manes, and even one in the first trimester costs at least $500. Eleven states prohibit health insurers from covering abortion, which means women must pay the entire cost out of pocket, says Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues manager at Guttmacher.
Since January 2011, when conservative Tea Party Republicans were elected nationwide, 423 different abortion-restricting laws have been enacted in 33 U.S. states, Nash says.
A majority of states, 27, require a waiting period between a first consultation and abortion, and 14 states require a woman to make two trips to the clinic days apart, according to Guttmacher. Some 26 states also require parental consent if the pregnant person is a minor. Sometimes that consent is not obtainable – if the minor is a victim of incest or rape or if her parents disapprove of her having had sex, says Nash. It then takes time to obtain permission through a court instead, she adds.
Eighteen states require that women be counseled before being permitted an abortion. In five states, women are told of a purported (and medically debunked) link between abortion and breast cancer, while eight states tell of abortion and long-term mental health consequences. Fourteen states require that a woman have an ultrasound before being permitted an abortion. The idea, says Nash, is that hearing a fetal heartbeat may make a woman less likely to go through with the abortion.
Anti-abortion legislators’ newest strategy is banning the use of telemedicine for medication abortions, in which a pregnant woman takes pills rather than has a surgical procedure. Telemedicine connects a patient via computer to a specialist with her medical records. It is the future of medicine, particularly in rural areas, says Nash. Nineteen states now ban its use for medication abortions, which “is effectively being denied an abortion,” she adds.
These laws “add to the burden of the abortion on the patient,” says Nash. And it means that a growing number of women are traveling to states where abortion is more easily obtained.
In response, a network of abortion funds, which raise money to help women pay for abortions they could not otherwise afford, has also grown up around the country. The funds and volunteer networks work closely with clinics, to make sure women can obtain the services they need.
A big fear
The underground support groups intentionally work quietly, almost secretly, say those interviewed. “Everyone is a target for anti-abortion violence and slander. We’ve kept our volunteer list small, because we don’t want someone who is anti-abortion signing up because it puts our patients in danger. That’s a big fear of ours,” explains Manes, referring to the murder of at least 11 abortion providers or patients between 1993 and 2015.
“We keep our network small and close to protect our patients. The patient needs me and my team to be really organized, to get trained, to be loving and compassionate volunteers. There hasn’t been a need for that to be public,” adds Manes.
Many of the volunteers say Jewish values motivate them to do this work, even if most of it is done under the radar.
Manes works as a doula with women giving birth and having abortions. She says her values “call me to be a fighter for justice and equity, and a world that is filled with wholeness and respects each individual’s autonomy,” adding that her Jewish values “have always informed what I do.” Manes, 25, worked for the National Council of Jewish Women in D.C. doing reproductive health organizing, and is currently a member of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow.
More than 20 percent of her group’s volunteers are Jewish, she says, some of them from a synagogue in Bethesda, Maryland.
Curzer, meanwhile, says that New York Haven Coalition’s “average volunteer is a retired Jewish woman.”
Booth, now 72, says the abortion support networks “are about helping those in need, rooted in the idea that no one is a stranger to us. If we have something, we make it available to others from the corners of the field,” she says, referring to the Torah requirement that the poor be allowed to take agricultural leftovers. These are “caring communities,” she says. “Not just a service but listening to women and treating them with dignity and respect. That is a Jewish value, and a human one.”