Israel: Land of Milk, Honey, and the Accessible Abortion
In this election cycle, as in many others of recent years, an issue at the forefront was abortion; that is, when it should be legal, whether or not the government should fund Planned Parenthood, etc. The legalization of abortion has been the subject of two Supreme Court cases, and although it has become a widely accepted practice in this country, it remains a controversial issue for American politicians and citizens.
Since abortion is a human rights issue, and is something that happens in every society, it would be plausible that its legal status would be a hot topic in most Westernized countries. In Israel, though, abortion as a political issue is something that we rarely hear about; why is it not of larger interest there, especially since many of its laws are dictated by Halacha?
Since 1977, Israel’s official policy on abortion has been as follows. If a woman wishes to have an abortion, she appears before a termination committee: a group of three individuals consisting of two physicians and one social worker. Of the three committee members, one must be a woman. The committee then either grants or denies the woman access to a legal abortion, using four criteria: the woman’s age, whether the fetus was conceived under circumstances of rape or incest, if the fetus has known defects, and whether or not the woman’s health or life is in danger.
Though this process seems harsh, 98% of women who seek abortions are granted access to them. Women whose cases are ostensibly unjustified by the four criteria can claim that having a child would put them into an unhealthy mental state and thereby fit into the fourth criterion. Abortion committees, despite their seemingly totalitarian nature, are therefore essentially just rubber stamps, there to grant legal abortion access to any woman and only in place as a formality.
In America, this process would be deemed undemocratic and unfair, which it definitely has the potential to be. In Israel, though, the existence of this process through which access to abortion is obtained is the very reason why abortion is not an issue that is up for constant public debate. The committee process satisfies both sides of the spectrum; the Ultra-Orthodox, who believe women should not be able to have abortions as they please, are satisfied because the committees technically serve to only grant abortion access to women who need it. On the opposite side of the spectrum, citizens who are more liberal should technically be satisfied, because, as a result of the leniency of the committees, nearly all women who want abortions are allowed to legally have them.
Since both sides are somewhat satisfied by the abortion process, the right by the letter of the law and the left by its spirit, there is not much political debate surrounding the issue. Perhaps if the far right were more aware of the leniency of the abortion committees, there would be more public discourse on the matter. When the legislation regarding these committees was established, however, members of the far right, especially Haredim, regarded this as a “moral victory” because the state was preventing women from getting abortions.
The issue, though, is not so black and white; while it might be easy for a woman to go through an abortion committee and be granted access to a legal abortion, many women are discouraged by the mere existence of the committees, and choose to have illegal abortions. Women might decide to go this route if they are afraid of being denied abortion access by a committee, or simply because they do not want to deal with the bureaucratic process that would delay the abortion. This is extremely unfortunate, as illegal abortions are often unsafe, and can put a woman’s health in great danger.
At the end of the day, since the majority of Israel’s citizens are satisfied with the way the government deals with abortions, the process is most likely not going to change. The topic is not a big political issue, and it is unlikely to become one soon because of Israel’s more pressing political issues. While this is understandable, it is nonetheless dangerous, because Israeli women are putting themselves in danger to have illegal abortions due to the intimidating committee approval process. Abortion is perhaps not the biggest issue facing Israel today, but it is most definitely not something that should be swept under the rug.