NEW YORK (Apr. 4)
Basing their arguments on Jewish law and tradition, both Orthodox and nondenominational Jewish groups have filed legal briefs urging the Supreme Court to strike down a Missouri law that in effect bans abortion.
But the unity among the groups is not as complete as it appears. Despite their opposition to aspects of the Missouri law, one of the Orthodox groups, Agudath Israel of America, is nonetheless urging the high court to overturn the 1973 ruling that established women’s right to abortions as a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution.
Agudath Israel differs from the other Jewish groups, including the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which hold that the decision to terminate a pregnancy, whatever the reason, is something for individuals, not the government, to decide.
The arguments surround a case called William L. Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, soon to be heard by the Supreme Court.
The Missouri statutes restrict abortion by denying public funds and facilities for the purpose of performing or counseling about abortions, and include a “finding” that human life begins at the moment of conception.
Missouri is appealing the decisions of a lower court, which found most of the statutes unconstitutional.
In addition, the state is asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which established a constitutional right to obtain an abortion.
Abortion rights advocates consider the case the most serious recent challenge to Roe vs. Wade, and are organizing a mass demonstration in Washington on Sunday. A number of Jewish organizations are planning to take part.
Jewish groups also joined major Protestant and interfaith organizations in signing onto a legal brief asking that the Missouri laws be struck down. Coordinated by the American Jewish Congress and written by Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow, the brief urges the laws be struck down for two main reasons.
It argues that by finding that human life begins at conception, the statutes establish a religious viewpoint as law, thereby violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which bars government establishment of religion.
The brief offers arguments from Jewish tradition that a total ban on abortion would violate the free exercise of religion.
Jewish law, the brief notes, actually makes abortion a requirement if the fetus endangers the mother’s life.
The brief contains statements representing the viewpoints of all branches of Judaism, including a statement by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council that “the Jewish community shares with others the reverence for life, on the hand, and the pluralistic society’s concern for individual rights and religious liberty.”
According to a source at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, or O.U., it was NJCRAC’s sensitivity to Orthodox beliefs that convinced O.U. leaders to sign onto the brief.
“We believe that every effort should be made to create a society in which people will willingly choose to bring children into the world,” said the source, who described the O.U. as an umbrella organization representing “centrist” Orthodoxy.
But the source said the O.U. also believes that when people choose not to proceed with pregnancies, “for reasons mandated by conscience and religious convictions, this feeling must be respected as well.”
Agudath Israel agrees with parts of the intergroup brief. In its own brief it asks that the finding on conception be struck down as a violation of the establishment clause. It also concurs that Jewish law requires abortion in cases where the mother’s life is endangered.
Still, Agudath Israel believes there is a middle ground between the “permissiveness” of Roe vs. Wade, which deems the choice to abort a “fundamental” constitutional right, and the strict restrictions of the Missouri statutes.
“At a minimum it’s not necessary to create a law that is totally permissive,” said David Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s general counsel and author of the brief. “Constitutionally there’s a very easy way: You define abortion as a fundamental right only if it involves danger to life or if religion would mandate it.”
The Jewish groups signing onto the interfaith brief are the American Jewish Committee, AJCongress, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, B’nai B’rith Women, Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Na’amat, National Council of Jewish Women, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, NJCRAC, North American Federation of Temple Youth and Union of American Hebrew Congregations.