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Jewish Groups Watch with Concern As Court Considers Abortion Case

April 22, 1992
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Concerned that the U.S. Supreme Court is on the verge of seriously limiting, if not ending, a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, a host of Jewish organizations have joined the legal battle against a Pennsylvania law restricting abortions.

The Jewish groups, which include major secular organizations and women’s groups, as well as organizations representing the Reform and Conservative movements, have joined friend-of-the-court briefs against Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act.

The only Jewish group to file a brief in support of the Pennsylvania law is an Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, which rejects abortion as a fundamental right except when based on religious belief.

The Supreme Court was to hear arguments on the case, Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, on Wednesday.

The Pennsylvania law being challenged requires that a doctor inform a woman seeking an abortion of the risks involved and of alternatives. The abortion must be delayed for 24 hours after the woman receives the information.

If married, the woman must sign a statement that her husband has been notified of the abortion. If she is under 18, she must obtain the consent of one parent.

Any ruling that upholds part of the Pennsylvania law overturns Roe vs. Wade, said Joan Bronk, president of the National Council of Jewish Women. She was referring to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that said that women have a “fundamental” right to an abortion under the constitutional right to privacy.


Bronk said that so many barriers to abortion have been set up by recent court rulings that “women will virtually not have reproductive freedom.”

She said that the worst fear among supporters of reproductive choice for women is not that the court will overturn Roe explicitly but that it will do it indirectly.

This view was echoed by Samuel Rabinove, legal director of the American Jewish Committee, who said the court has been gradually whittling down the rights granted by Roe.

He said the 1989 decision in Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services “gave the green light to enact restrictions on abortion rights” where there was a compelling state interest to do so. In that case, the court upheld a Missouri law that barred the use of public hospitals or clinics for abortions.

Steven Freeman, legal director of the Anti-Defamation League, also expressed concern that the court will back away from Roe vs. Wade.

Freeman argued that Roe correctly balanced competing concerns as pregnancy progressed. He said that during the first three months of pregnancy, Roe left the decision between the woman and her doctor.

During the middle period, the government could step in to prevent abortion, and it certainly could prevent abortions during the last three months, especially when the fetus is able to survive on its own.

But David Zwiebel, general counsel for Agudath Israel, maintained that abortion is not a fundamental right and that to allow abortions without restrictions is unwise.

“Laws that undermine the sanctity of life send a message that is profoundly dangerous for a society,” he said.


On the other hand, Agudath Israel argues that religious freedom is a fundamental right. In the brief that it filed in support of the Pennsylvania law, the Orthodox group stressed that abortion is a fundamental liberty when based on a woman’s religious belief, such as when a Jewish woman seeks an abortion because her life is endangered by pregnancy.

But this is the very reason for upholding the unrestricted right to an abortion, said Phil Baum, associate executive director of the American Jewish Congress.

Baum said Roe should be upheld since it leaves the decision on whether or not to have an abortion to the individual woman, “answering to God and her conscience,” Baum said.

Among the 178 organizations filing briefs in support of the challenge to the Pennsylvania law are groups such as the New Jewish Agenda, Naamat USA, Hadassah and Women’s American ORT, which normally concentrate on Israeli affairs.

But June Walker, chairman of Hadassah’s American affairs department, said that since its inception, the women’s Zionist group has involved itself in the American scene.

“We are Americans who have to exercise our rights as American women,” she said.

Concern about what the high court will do has been heightened by recent changes on the bench. Only two members of the original five-justice majority in Roe are still on the court. They are Justices Harry Blackmun, the author of the decision, and John Paul Stevens.

The two newest members of the court, Justices David Souter and Clarence Thomas, have not yet voted on an abortion issue. But even without them, the court is expected to have the five votes needed to overturn Roe.

Abortion-related laws that are even more restrictive than Pennsylvania’s are expected to come before the Supreme Court next year from other states. They, too, are aimed at overturning Roe. One in Guam was recently rejected by a federal appeals court, which said that Roe vs. Wade is still the law of the land.


Supporters of Roe are now turning to the state legislatures and Congress to enact legislation providing the similar rights.

The National Council of Jewish Women, B’nai B’rith Women and other Jewish and non-Jewish organizations have for years been targeting state legislatures.

But Bronk said the major effort now will be in Congress, where Sen. Alan Cranston and Rep. Don Edwards, both California Democrats, have introduced the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify the 1973 ruling.

The bill is picking up support in both chambers of Congress and is expected to gain momentum should the court uphold the Pennsylvania law.

“Getting that bill out of Congress clean will be the challenge for us,” Bronk said.

That would mean with large majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, since President Bush has said he will veto it.

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