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Groups see showdown on abortion

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Members of the National Council for Jewish Women rally for reproductive rights April 25, 2004, in Washington. (Matthew E. Berger)

Members of the National Council for Jewish Women rally for reproductive rights April 25, 2004, in Washington. (Matthew E. Berger)

WASHINGTON, Jan. 18 (JTA) — Jewish groups are hoping to enlist rabbis in the struggle to ensure that abortion rights are not eroded during President Bush’s second term. A coalition of organizations, led by the National Council of Jewish Women, is asking rabbis across the country to sign a letter that would be sent to U.S. senators if a new Supreme Court nominee is announced, as is expected in the next few years. The letter approaches the abortion issue from a religious liberty perspective, arguing that if the procedure is made illegal, Jews will be prevented from following their religious teachings — which mandate abortions in rare circumstances when the life of the mother is threatened. It’s an aggressive effort by the Jewish community to play a larger role in the abortion debate, and comes at a time of great fear that impending Supreme Court vacancies and a Republican Congress will align to roll back a woman’s ability to end a pregnancy. The push also is timed to coincide with Saturday’s 32nd anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade, which made abortion legal. In addition to seeking out rabbis, NCJW has pushed Jewish civil rights groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, to highlight the abortion issue on their legislative agendas. Advocates on both sides of the debate are expecting a fight if a Supreme Court justice announces retirement and attention turns to choosing a replacement. Chief Justice William Rehnquist is being treated for thyroid cancer, and several other justices, including the moderate Sandra Day O’Connor and the liberal John Paul Stevens, are of advancing age. With the influence of Christian conservatives and the focus on faith and values heightened after November’s presidential election, Jewish leaders hope the influence of rabbis and a religious argument for legalized abortion will be a counterweight. The goal is to show that not all people of faith oppose abortion rights. “The religious right has succeeded and clearly established a feeling in this country that people of faith are against choice,” NCJW President Marsha Atkind said. “But that isn’t the case, and we need to make that very clear.” The goal is to get rabbinical leaders and congregational rabbis to sign a letter that will be sent to all senators if a court nomination is forwarded by President Bush, a time when the letter is anticipated to have the most impact. The letter suggests the decision to have an abortion should be up to a woman in consultation with her doctor and clergy, and shouldn’t be determined by governmental decree. Most Reform and Conservative rabbis support abortion rights, and both movements are reaching out to their members through rabbinic listservs to get them to sign the letter. The Orthodox Union does not participate in abortion debates because of the complexity of halachah on the issue. Agudath Israel of America opposes the current abortion laws, and seeks laws that would allow abortions only in exceptional cases and when mandated by religious law. “We would like to see Roe v. Wade, which is a bad decision, overturned,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, Agudath Israel’s director of public affairs. “But we would not like to see abortions outlawed without exception.” One Orthodox rabbi said he supports NCJW’s efforts because he is concerned about federal judges outlawing a procedure that halachic law specifically calls for in rare circumstances. “I think the Orthodox community should be concerned about laws that would restrict people from observing halachah,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Shalom Talmud Torah synagogue in Washington. Jewish leaders believe a statement from a diverse list of rabbis from would carry more weight with senators than rallies and other overt efforts to show support for choice. “They speak with a kind of moral authority and are compelling speakers,” said Sammie Moshenberg, NCJW’s Washington director. “The presence of a long list of rabbis on a letter will make senators stand up and take notice.” It also will be a tangible sign for senators that religious leaders, including ones from their home states, back abortion rights. Pro-choice groups often have centered their argument on a woman’s right to privacy, but in its latest appeal NCJW specifically focuses on the religious liberty issue. The crux is that prohibiting abortions could in some cases prevent Jews from practicing their religion. That would mean that the religious views of those who believe abortion is always wrong could obstruct others from practicing their beliefs. “It is imperative that nominees to the federal bench protect fundamental religious and personal freedoms, such as reproductive choice,” the letter says. “Any infringement on these rights subverts the basis upon which our nation is built.” NCJW has pushed Jewish civil rights groups to take a larger stand on this issue. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee at times have spoken out on choice — against the ban on so-called partial birth abortions, which passed Congress in 2003, for example — but NCJW has asked them to make the issue a more central part of their legislative agendas. “We want to make clear that it is not the religious view to be against reproductive rights,” said Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee’s legislative director.

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