I remember “Anne,” a young woman I treated in my social work practice, who told me about an unwanted pregnancy. A graduate student at UCLA, she was not ready to have a child or get married – that was for later, after grad school. The year was 1970; abortion was illegal. Anne was willing to try anything and do it as fast as possible – even going into debt and using an unlicensed practitioner at a time when it wasn’t uncommon for women to get seriously ill – or die – from botched procedures or self-induced abortions using knitting needles, coat hangers or poisonous douching solutions. The cost was $300, the equivalent of close to $2,000 today, and she took it out of her meager savings to pay a psychologist who performed abortions in his office.
Anne is a survivor of a back-room abortion performed by a non-medical, non-licensed provider – some may call him a “quack.” Anne called him her lifesaver.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade ended dangerous ends to unwanted pregnancies. Yet, 45 years later, a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choice is eroding, through mandated waiting periods, rigorous regulations placed on women’s health clinics that aren’t required for other outpatient centers (such as plastic surgery clinics where far riskier procedures are done) and fewer gynecologists willing, or even trained, to do the procedure safely.
Make no mistake about it: a woman’s right to make medical decisions about her own body is under assault. Just two weeks ago, US Vice President Mike Pence told a gathering of the Susan B. Anthony List & Life Institute that legal abortion would end in the US “in our time.”
It confounds and infuriates me how many people don’t recognize that just as pregnancy and childbirth are part of the life cycle, so too is the end of an unwanted pregnancy – whether a woman’s physical or mental health is at risk, a woman or couple do not want to bring a child into a dangerous or impoverished situation, or the pregnancy was the result of a rape. Judaism, in fact, teaches that the life of a woman takes precedence over the life of a fetus.
Rashi, the Talmud’s premier commentator, wrote: “For as long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a living thing and it is permissible to take its life in order to save its mother.” Rabbi Isaac Klein, a Conservative movement authority on Jewish law, wrote that “abortion can be performed for therapeutic reasons, of both a physical and mental nature.”
Yet tremendous efforts – at the state and federal levels – are underway to take that right away from women and, in doing so, the family is also weakened.The Supreme Court later this month is set to hear oral argument in NIFLA v. Becerra, in which National Institute of Family and Life Advocates is challenging California’s Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care and Transparency) Act. NIFLA represents the anti-choice movement and its so-called women’s health clinics, which call themselves “crisis pregnancy centers” to intentionally deceive people about what services they provide. These “clinics” are funded and staffed by anti-abortion activists and not trained medical professionals.
FACT requires all licensed health care facilities to post or distribute a notice alerting clients that California has public programs that provide free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, including contraception, prenatal care and abortion for eligible women, and where they should call to determine eligibility. Unlicensed facilities must alert clients that they are not licensed by the state. In fact, 90% of the “crisis pregnancy centers” in California are not licensed medical centers.
Not only are these centers not helpful for vulnerable women seeking counseling and accurate medical information, they often provide inaccurate information, reportedly telling women that abortions are high-risk procedures – far from the truth when performed in early stages and less risky than taking a pregnancy to term – and telling the lie that women who have abortions are at a higher risk for breast cancer. Even women seeking assistance with continuing a pregnancy are at risk as anti-abortion activists instead of trained medical personnel treat them.
Forty-five years after the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which so many of us cheered as finally giving a woman the right to make her own reproductive choices, that right is steadily eroding. Mandated waiting periods, untrained doctors, unnecessary scans, parental and/or spousal approval and fake “women’s health centers” are leading to untenable situations – not only for women but for men and families as well.
As my patient Anne experienced nearly 50 years ago, a woman may again have to risk her life to plan a viable family and future that she deserves.
The author is a retired clinical social worker who serves as a founding board member of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.