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Upset at Court, Jewish Groups Vow to Fight Moves to Restrict Abortion

July 5, 1989
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Several American Jewish groups have expressed consternation over the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling Monday allowing states to sharply limit the practice of abortion.

“The court has decided to chip away at women’s reproductive rights by giving the states power to regulate abortions,” said Lenore Feldman, national president of the National Council of Jewish Women said.

“In many states, this decision will turn the clock back to the days before 1973 and will open the door for states to abandon women’s right to choose.”

1973 was the year the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s constitutional right to have an abortion in the landmark Roe vs. Wade case. The court stopped short of overturning that ruling Monday, but activists on both sides of the divisive issue agree that the scope of the 1973 decision was severely weakened.

Monday’s decision was “almost an invitation of the court to states to come up with their own (anti-abortion) laws,” said Aileen Cooper, director of public affairs for B’nai B’rith Women.

NCJW and BBW, which have been advocating a woman’s right to choose an abortion since the 1960s, said their local branches would now lobby state legislatures against adopting anti-abortion laws. Other Jewish groups also plan to work against state laws restricting abortion.


The only support for the court’s ruling in the Jewish community came from Orthodox organizations. Abba Cohen, Washington representative of Agudath Israel of America, said that his organization’s attorneys would have to analyze the decision before making a formal statement.

“However, based on preliminary reports, it appears as if the court has taken a step away from the absolute permissiveness of Roe vs. Wade by making abortion on demand less readily available,” Cohen said. “We regard that as a positive development.”

Dennis Rapps, executive director of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which defends the rights of Orthodox Jews, said his group had not taken a position in the case.

But he, too, stressed that Orthodox Jews are “opposed to the concept of abortion on demand.”

The court’s 5-4 decision, written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, upheld a Missouri law that restricts abortion by denying public funds and facilities for counseling about or performing abortions.

The court also said that a state could determine when life begins. The Missouri law states that life begins at conception.

Rehnquist was supported by Justices Byron White, Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy in overruling lower court decisions rejecting the Missouri law, in the case, Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services.

Dissenting were Justices Harry Blackmun, who authored Roe vs. Wade, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and John Stevens.

Only Scalia supported the request of Missouri and the Bush administration to overturn Roe vs. Wade. But Blackmun noted that the high court is scheduled to hear three more cases dealing with abortion when it returns in October.


While most mainstream Jewish organizations were upset by the court decision, there was special dismay on the part of the women’s organizations. As a representative of one of the groups put it, “This is our issue.”

Joan Bronk, NCJW’s vice president, who traveled from Fort Lee, N.J., to join the pro-choice supporters at the court Monday, said women were “saddened and outraged.”

She said that the day before Americans celebrated Independence Day, the Supreme Court had taken away “personal freedom” from more than half of the country’s population.

Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said that the “only virtue” of the court’s “unfortunate decision” is that it did not explicitly overrule Roe vs. Wade.”

Siegman expressed particular concern that the “decision will embolden and encourage opponents of the right to choice, not only at the state and federal legislative level, but on the streets and the doors to abortion clinics.

“We pledge ourselves to meet those challenges in all forums,” he said.

Sholom Comay, president of the American Jewish Committee, said that his organization regrets the decision. “We believe that the court erred” and “we share with Justice Brennan the concern for the future of the right of ‘women of this nation to control their destinies.’

“We must hope that the court will consider its decision in Webster as the outer limit in the interpretation of Roe and not as the first step in the undermining of that decision,” he said.

Daniel Mariaschin, director of public affairs for B’nai B’rith International, said the ruling was a setback for choice in pregnancy and abortion. “We are urging our members across the United States to be vigilant in their states and prevent erosion of this crucial private right.”


Leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism also pledged to mobilize their members on behalf of freedom of choice.

“This is a serious setback to human rights in America,” said Rabbi Douglas Krantz, chairman of the justice and peace committee of Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The Reform congregational movement considers the ruling “a deplorable attack on the religious freedom of all Americans,” Albert Vorspan, senior vice president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Dolores Wilkenfeld, president of the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, said in a joint statement.

They said they would mobilize “more than 1 million adherents of Reform Judaism” in “vigorously opposing any attempts by state legislatures to ban or otherwise limit the right of free choice in abortion.”

The Conservative movement has argued that, under special circumstances, abortion is not only allowed but required under Jewish law to protect the health and well-being of the mother.

Rabbi Nina Cardin, spokeswoman for the social justice committee of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said that by denying the ability to obtain a safe, legal abortion, the court’s decision would deny Jewish women “their fundamental right of religious freedom.”

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