Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Jewish Groups on Both Sides As Congress Moves on Abortion

October 22, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Jewish groups are closely monitoring progress on a new late-term abortion bill that could become law by the end of the week.

The bill, which outlaws a specific procedure technically known as intact dilation and evacuation, is opposed by a majority of Jewish organizations. They say it criminalizes a medical procedure.

At least one Orthodox group supports the bill, known as the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, arguing that the procedure may be a form of infanticide.

The issue for the Jewish community centers around different interpretations of halachah, or Jewish law, and whether the mother’s health is more important than the life of a fetus.

Both sides are gearing up for what they believe will be a long court battle.

The U.S. Senate passed the ban Tuesday, 64-34, three weeks after the House of Representatives passed the same act, 281-142.

President Bush supports the bill and is expected to sign the legislation into law. President Clinton vetoed similar legislation twice.

If passed, it would be the first measure restricting abortion to become federal law since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

In a so-called “partial-birth abortion,” the fetus is partially delivered and then a doctor punctures its skull. The procedure is generally carried out relatively late in a pregnancy.

Under the new law, doctors who performed the procedure could be fined and jailed for up to two years.

Abortion opponents argue that fetuses that are inches away from being born should be protected.

“The gruesome and inhumane nature of the partial-birth abortion procedure and its disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant promotes a complete disregard for infant human life that can only be countered by a prohibition of the procedure,” the legislation says.

Supporters of abortion rights say the procedure is necessary in instances when the mother’s health is at stake. While the legislation does exempt doctors who perform the procedure to save the mother’s life, many Jewish groups want that provision widened to protect a mother’s physical and mental health.

But supporters of the ban say there is no evidence of the procedure being used to protect a mother’s health. Lawmakers say they have gathered information that shows that the procedure is never used to preserve the health of a woman, that it even poses significant risks to the mother and is outside the standard of medical care.

Abortion-rights advocates counter that the bill is vague and could have a chilling effect on doctors who perform other types of abortions.

“The language is so murky that you can’t be sure it only covers these late-term abortions,” said Lois Waldman, director of the commission on women’s equality of the American Jewish Congress.

But Orthodox groups argue that a more narrow interpretation of abortion law is warranted.

“The larger question on abortion, which is a very fair question, is: Do we need to have a law that provides a blanket right?” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America. “The notion that fetal life deserves no protection is wrong.”

Jewish groups on both sides of the issue are relying on different interpretations of halachah to support their arguments.

Reform leaders cite laws indicating that the life of the mother is paramount and has a higher value than the “potential life” of the fetus.

“In Jewish law, we are commanded to take care of our health and the well-being of our bodies,” said Barbara Weinstein, legislative director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “Any legislation that restricts our ability to do that is problematic.”

The RAC’s Web site references the Mishnah, Tractate Ohalot, which says a woman is forbidden from sacrificing her own life to save that of her fetus and that if the mother’s life is seriously threatened she has no option but abortion.

But Zwiebel argues that because the baby is alive when a “partial-birth” procedure is conducted — a critical point that is a source of contention — this type of abortion “pushes one life aside to save another life.”

“Depending on the circumstances, killing a fetus after it has partially emerged from the birth canal may more properly be deemed infanticide than abortion, and Jewish law might not even recognize a ‘life of the mother’ exception that would permit the procedure,” an Agudath Israel statement on the issue says.

The Orthodox Union does not take part in the abortion debate because of the complexity of halachah on the issue, said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.

“It’s very difficult to write legislation that promotes a pro-life approach but leaves room for circumstances in which a woman, in consultation with her doctor and rabbi, would need to have an abortion,” he said.

The issue seems almost certain to end up at the Supreme Court. In 2000, the court rejected a Nebraska ban on late- term abortions, saying it failed to include an exemption for instances when the procedure was necessary to preserve the mother’s health.

More than 10 Jewish organizations signed briefs against the Nebraska law; Agudath Israel supported the ban.

Abortion-rights proponents say they believe the new bill is too similar to the Nebraska law and hope it will suffer the same fate.

Opponents argue that information suggesting that the procedure is not used to protect a mother’s health reopens the debate on the procedure.

Recommended from JTA