“Torah study cannot be divorced from people’s everyday concerns,” said David Waksberg, by way of explaining why the organization he leads, Jewish LearningWorks, known for more standard educational fare, had organized a panel on abortion stories.
“Breaking the Silent Stigma: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Abortion,” held March 10 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, featured three Jewish women, each with a unique perspective on the issue.
“One in four women has had an abortion — we just don’t talk about it,” began Michelle Oberman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University whose recent book is “Her Body, Our Laws: On the Front Lines of the Abortion War, from El Salvador to Oklahoma.”
The life vs. choice dichotomy that frames discussion of abortion in America is misleading, according to Oberman. “Little choice is involved,” she said, with half of all women who seek abortions living well under the poverty line and 60 percent already mothers. For them, Oberman said, seeking abortion is not simply a choice. They face other factors that limit access: having to travel a significant distance, taking time off from underpaid jobs and covering child care expenses.
“Choices are constructed,” Oberman said. “And government policy constructs those choices.”
Though many think about abortion as a Catholic or Evangelical Christian issue, “the commandment they feel to protect fetuses is as strong as the commandment I feel as a Jew to be active on this issue,” she said. For Oberman, that sense comes from the simple injunction to love your neighbor.
“Christians have held the megaphone for too long,” she said. “It’s time for us Jews to be heard on this.”
The second speaker was Debbie Bamberger, a women’s health nurse practitioner who provides abortion services and shared that she had two abortions herself. Bamberger, 51, has been on the front lines for a long time; she began volunteering at Planned Parenthood when she was 19, and was the first nurse practitioner in California to be trained in first-trimester aspiration abortions.
She relayed how a friend of hers, a fellow abortion provider, uses his Christianity to justify his work, and said it inspired her to do the same from a Jewish perspective. So a few years ago she arranged a Kevah study group that brought 18 Jewish Bay Area abortion providers together to explore the issues in Jewish texts.
“Abortion is not prohibited in the Torah,” said Bamberger, and even contains a passage that has been widely interpreted in Jewish law to imply that “a fetus does not have the same value as a human being,” giving some moral weight to the decision to end a pregnancy.
“Ending the stigma around abortion is a Jewish value,” said Bamberger, who recently began a doctoral program at UCSF in nursing practice to study that stigma.
Debbie Findling, the third speaker, opened with a vivid illustration of people’s shame and reticence around abortion. She asked the audience of 50 to raise their hands if they had ever answered a call or replied to a text while driving. Then she asked for a show of hands if they ever drank alcohol when they were underage. In both cases, almost every person in the room raised a hand.
She then asked how many had had abortions. And how many had mothers and wives and other women in their lives who had abortions. Few hands went up. “I suspect there are more,” said Findling, a philanthropy adviser for several foundations, including the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund.
Her point was this: Why do we feel more shame around a legal, safe medical procedure than we do around actions that are actually illegal and possibly dangerous?
Findling told stories of three abortions, the first when she was 16, one in college, and one in her 40s. She wrote about the last abortion in an essay about the pain of ending a wanted pregnancy. In the case of the first two, she said, “I was stupid. I was irresponsible. I knew better, but I was young and invincible. I was embarrassed that I made a decision that put me in a position to need an abortion. But I was not ashamed to get one.”
Indeed, Findling has been vocal about her experiences and about her wish for other women to overcome their shame and share their stories. Following a 2006 interview in Ms. magazine, she was the target of hate mail, some of which threatened her life. “I refuse to feel shame. I refuse to be silent,” she said.
Findling said many Jews fight for abortion rights on an individual basis, but “the Jewish community has not been so great on this topic on the institutional level.”
In her many years of work in Jewish philanthropy, she said, she’s never seen a single grant proposal from a Jewish organization for a program regarding abortion. “Institutional silence is no different from personal silence,” she said, making a point to thank Jewish LearningWorks for doing its part by organizing the panel.
During a question-and-answer session, Oberman spoke about ways forward in the polarized conversation about abortion in America.
One way to search for common ground with people who are anti-abortion, she said, is to ask the question: How would things be different if abortion were illegal? If both sides can agree that women would still have abortions regardless of legality, that opens up a line of dialogue.
Oberman’s current academic work focuses in part on abortion in other countries. Those with low abortion rates keep them low through support such as affordable housing, guaranteed parental leave and help buying diapers and other supplies. If both sides can agree that such policies would decrease abortion, while increasing quality of life for mothers, there is a chance of finding common ground on the issue, Oberman said.
She also spoke about a Christian professor with whom she has an ongoing dialogue. The professor, Oberman said, follows a clear theology on the issue: Life begins at conception, and Jesus entered the world as a fetus; therefore fetuses are sacred.
But Oberman shared a story that changed her colleague’s view of the issue, if only a little. Oberman’s grandmother was nine months pregnant when she got in a car accident and lost the baby. It couldn’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery, because in Jewish law, life begins at birth, and this fetus was never born. The professor “saw that this is a theologically coherent position,” which was eye-opening for her.
Findling agreed that Jewish tradition offers different perspectives on abortion that others could benefit from hearing. When contemplating her third abortion, Findling spoke with her rabbi, who told her that in Jewish law, “a fetus is akin to the mother’s arm.” That is, without the mother’s body, a fetus cannot live, just as an arm cannot live when severed from the body.
When Findling asked about the Jewish imperative to “choose life,” her rabbi said she is doing just that by “choosing life that is known” — her own.