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Jewish Groups Take Stand Opposing a Change in Israel’s Abortion Law

A coalition of American Jewish organizations has issued a statement strongly protesting a proposed change in Israel’s abortion law that it contends would have the effect of limiting the availability of abortions to Israeli women.

The proposed change is one of four legislative demands made by the Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party as a condition for joining the Likud-led government coalition on Nov. 18.

The statement was drafted last week by 14 national American Jewish organizations and released Monday. Copies will be sent to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, Menachem Porush, the Agudat Yisrael deputy minister of labor and social affairs; Ettia Simcha, Shamir’s adviser on women’s affairs; and to every Cabinet minister.

The two-paragraph statement opposes “any legislation that would limit a woman’s fundamental right to privacy and confidentiality in making this most personal decision.” It points out that in any country where abortion has been restricted, “the result has been a dramatic increase in the death rate for women.”

“We urge Israeli leaders not to risk women’s lives in the interests of political expediency,” it says.

There were 15,300 legal abortions performed in Israel in 1988 and 6,000 illegal abortions that year, the last for which figures are available.

Under current Israeli law, if a woman wants an abortion, she must petition one of 27 committees, which are located in hospitals. Each committee is composed of two doctors and a social worker.

PRIVATE HOSPITAL COMMITTEES AT ISSUE

Though just six of the 27 committees are in private hospitals, as opposed to public or government hospitals, private hospitals perform over half of the legal abortions in Israel, according to Sylvia Horwitz, associate director of the Israel office of the American Jewish Congress, one of the organizations that signed the statement.

Agudat Yisrael wants the committees in private hospitals to be eliminated. The religious party’s contention, Horwitz said, is that the private hospitals have a financial interest in approving abortions.

Simcha, the adviser on women’s affairs, agreed to a compromise with Porush of Agudah under which the eliminated private committees would be replaced by additional public ones.

But that compromise is unacceptable for several reasons, according to Leslie Newman, New York representative of the Coalition to Prevent Passage of the Abortion Amendment in Israel.

The coalition is an umbrella group of 40 Israeli women’s rights, civil rights and family planning organizations, including the Israel Women’s Network, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Israel Family Planning Association.

The Simcha-Porush compromise would effectively reduce the availability of abortion, even if all six private hospital committees were replaced, according to Newman.

Committees in public hospitals meet just one or two days a week to consider requests, whereas committees in private hospitals meet up to six days a week, Horwitz said.

If all of the committees were at public hospitals, fewer cases would be considered, and women would have to wait longer to be approved, “often past the first trimester,” according to the Coalition to Prevent Passage.

COST LIKELY TO INCREASE

As a result of the longer waiting time, many more women would seek illegal abortions from private doctors, the coalition says. And that would likely drive up the price, currently about $1,000, which is nearly a month’s salary for the average Israeli.

“If market demand increases the cost of private abortions, lower-income women will be forced to resort to back-alley abortions, performed under unsanitary and often life-threatening conditions,” the coalition said in its back-ground literature on the proposed legislation.

The coalition, now backed by 14 American Jewish organizations, has developed an alternative amendment, which proposes that the committees eliminated in private hospitals be replaced by committees in clinics and branch hospitals of Kupat Holim, the national health service offered by the Histadrut labor federation.

That would increase the number of cases considered and improve the geographic distribution of committees, since Kupat Holim clinics exist all over Israel.

And while Agudat Yisrael’s amendment would give the power to establish or eliminate committees to the Ministry of Health, where the decisions would be subject to partisan political considerations, the alternative amendment “outlines clear medical criteria to determine which facilities may set up committees,” said the Israeli coalition.

“The alternative amendment addresses Agudat Yisrael’s concern about the alleged fiscal interest of private hospitals without limiting access to abortion committees,” the group said.

Under current law, an abortion can be obtained in Israel for one of four reasons: if the pregnancy is extramarital or the result of a forbidden relationship, like rape or incest; if the woman is under 18 or over 40 years old; if there is risk of the child being born physically or mentally abnormal; or if the pregnancy is a health risk for the woman.

Originally there was a fifth clause permitting abortion for social or economic reasons, but that was repealed in 1979 because of pressure from the religious parties, Newman said.

HAS PASSED FIRST READING

The present amendment is now being considered by the Knesset Labor and Welfare Committee, after winning initial passage by the full house, and is expected to be introduced for a second reading any day, according to Newman.

If the legislation does not pass the second reading, it can be sent back to committee for further consideration and negotiation.

The joint statement opposing the Israeli legislation was organized by the National Council of Jewish Women at the request of the Coalition to Prevent Passage.

Also signing it were American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Americans for a Progressive Israel, Association of Reform Zionists of America, B’nai B’rith Women, Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot, Jewish Labor Committee, Na’amat USA, National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, New Israel Fund, Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of America and Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.

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