Spurred by religious MK, abortion politics arrive in Israel

Israel’s paradoxical approach to abortion — it is illegal unless approved by a committee, which in fact gives the go-ahead to 98 percent of requests — could change dramatically if a member of Knesset is successful in his quest to put limits on the procedure.

Nissim Zeev of the haredi Orthodox Shas party, who has said publicly that abortion is akin to murder, wants to make abortion illegal after the 22nd week of pregnancy unless the pregnancy poses a danger to the mother’s health or the fetus suffers from severe defects and is unlikely to survive.

“This has nothing to do with women’s rights,” said Zeev. “I demand that we have a public debate on this campaign of murder.”

Political observers don’t think his measure will progress far, but Zeev has shined a spotlight on an issue that has never figured in the country’s political campaigns. In fact, Israel does not even have an active anti-abortion movement.

As a general rule, Jewish law allows abortion in the first 40 days of pregnancy and in cases where the life of the mother is in mortal danger. But many rabbis, especially haredi Orthodox, believe that the messianic redemption will be delayed until all souls are born.

Shas lawmaker Nissim Zeev, shown in the Knesset June 11, compares abortion to murder. phoro/jta-uri lenz-flash90

“This is about the last thing we need right now — another conflict between the religious and the secular,” said one Knesset member from the coalition, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

As a result, the legislator said, the proposal has been purposely buried in committee. Still, in Israel’s unpredictable political landscape, its existence on the dockets could bring it to the fore without warning.

It’s quite a contrast to the United States, where since the 1973 Roe v. Wade case legalizing abortion, the topic has been a heated political and social issue. The lack of controversy in Israel is mainly due to the large gap between law and reality.

The Israeli penal code states that termination of pregnancy is a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. But the code also addresses numerous circumstances in which an abortion may be legally performed, including benefit to emotional and financial well-being.

The procedure must be approved by a special committee with at least two physicians and one licensed social worker; at least one of the three must be a woman. Yet approval is practically automatic if the pregnant woman is younger than 17 or older than 40; if the conception was a result of rape, incest or extramarital relations; if the pregnancy is likely to endanger the mother’s physical or mental well-being; or if the fetus has been diagnosed with a possible birth defect.

Both Zeev and feminist organizations such as the Israel Women’s Network confirm that the committees approve nearly all requested abortions.

Women do not need the consent of the father of the fetus, nor do minors need the consent of parents or guardians. Israeli medical coverage offers an array of free testing for genetic and congenital birth defects; the army provides at least one free abortion to every female soldier who requests one.

Less than 10 percent of abortions in Israel are carried out after the 22nd week, and some 20,000 legal abortions are performed in public hospitals every year in Israel, according to the Knesset research department. This does not include abortions performed because of concern for the mother’s physical health; these cases often are not even brought before the committee, especially if there is any medical emergency.

It is unknown how many women avoid the committee — whether because they are between 17 and 40, or because of personal preference — and turn to a private doctor. Having an abortion is not a criminal offense, and unless medical malpractice is involved, the physician performing the abortion will not be prosecuted. Private abortions cost $1,500 to $1,750.

Most Israeli feminists and others favoring the availability of the option have been hesitant to challenge the status quo. But Zeev’s proposal may force their hand, acknowledges Tal Tamir, the director general of Women in Their Bodies, a feminist health organization.

“Israel is a very pro-natal society and carries a strong message that Jewish women should bear children, especially after the Holocaust,” said Tamir. “We have the highest rate of IVF [in vitro fertilization] services — all paid for by the state — in the world. So women who are the ‘proper age to have children’ aren’t supposed to have abortions. But Israeli society also wants perfect children, so if there are defects, the abortion is considered OK.”

Furthermore, Tamir adds, the situation is discriminatory. “Women who have the money go to private clinics. Underprivileged women are forced to go to a committee and plead their case,” she said.