The White House has announced that it is reviving a rule that would “gag” health care providers by banning them from receiving federal funds through Title X of the Public Health Service Act if they mention abortion or abortion-related services. The rule is designed to make it impossible for specialized reproductive health providers like Planned Parenthood to serve patients in the program. It will take us back to a time many women would rather forget.
A woman I know told me that in 1951, when divorce was extremely difficult in many U.S., she had to travel to Alabama to end her marriage. Being very young, far from home and all alone compounded her anguish over the failed relationship. Afterward, while she worked, went to school and raised her small child by herself, she became pregnant. Another child was out of the question for her, yet abortion was illegal. Fortunately, a physician agreed to perform the procedure. Once again, the young woman left her son to travel out of state. She and the doctor entered the office in the dead of night, pulled the shades down and dimmed the lights lest they be discovered. The secretive preparations and the knowledge they were committing a crime were terrifying. In contrast, the medical procedure was not.
Today, divorce is generally accessible, but abortion is not. A dearth of competent practitioners, the need to travel long distances, financial cost, and an obstacle course of legal requirements bar women from obtaining the safest medical procedure possible. This despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled again and again that women have a fundamental right to abortion. For example, as of 2018, 32 states and the District of Columbia prohibit the use of state funds for abortion in most cases; 45 states allow individual health care providers to refuse to participate in an abortion; and 27 states require a woman seeking an abortion to wait a specified period of time, usually 24 hours, between when she receives counseling and the procedure is performed.
Religion is often wielded as the rationale for limiting a woman’s right to make healthcare decisions for herself. Yet, as a person of faith, I wholeheartedly believe that access to the full range of reproductive health care services, including abortion, is critical to women’s well-being, dignity and conscience, not to mention religious liberty. And I’m not alone. I recently had the good fortune to be in Washington, D.C. with more than 100 women of faith—many faiths—from across the country. We were all there to advocate for the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), a federal bill that would bar states from imposing medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion, interfere with patient’s personal decision making, or block access to safe, legal abortion care. Every woman must be allowed to make her own faith-informed decisions about her reproductive life— that is why reproductive freedom is inextricably bound to religious freedom.
For decades, women’s groups worked to ensure the right to safe, legal abortion in this country. Since 1973, when Roe v. Wade became law, opponents of safe, legal care have been doing their best to erode that right. The latest, and one of the most egregious attempts, is the proposed “gag” rule, which would remove from women, particularly low-income women, access to critical reproductive health services, including abortion. Similarly, the Iowa “fetal heartbeat bill,” passed just days before I went to Washington to help protect WPHA, is poised to erode women’s healthcare rights. The Iowa bill bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, or about six weeks into a pregnancy, often before a woman is even aware of the pregnancy.
In signing that bill, Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, said “[f]or me, my faith leads me to protect every Iowan, no matter how small.” Her faith. But what about the faith of others?
Under Jewish law, life begins at birth. Prior to the birth of a baby, the emotional and physical health of the mother are paramount and cannot be sacrificed to the fetus. Laws to the contrary citing other religious tradition that life begins at conception codify one religious practice over another and deny women’s ability to make healthcare decisions based on their own faith. Such a faith-based policy preference is an overt violation of the Constitution’s mandates to separate religion and state, and not prohibit the free exercise of religion.
The WHPA protects women’s health, safety and rights, including the right to live life in accordance to their faith. WHPA is an important step to stop state laws that create legal, economic and practical barriers to safe medical care, and worsen existing disparities in access. It would preserve the strong system of regulations that truly ensure women’s safety while prohibiting disingenuous and dangerous laws that shut down clinics and threaten women’s health. Congress needs to pass WHPA quickly. It’s high time to increase, not limit, women’s access to abortion – and as a Jewish person of faith, I won’t stop petitioning Congress until they guarantee it.
Beatrice Kahn, a lifelong New Yorker and lawyer by training, is the president of the National Council of Jewish Women board of directors.