When I spoke out about reproductive choice issues in the 1980s when I was a rabbi in Topeka, Kansas, I never imagined that I would be standing here in Las Cruces, New Mexico in 2013 giving yet another talk about the need to keep options for reproductive choice legal and open. I am amazed that some people still don’t understand what it means to give Americans freedom to make their own decisions according to their own conscience or their beliefs.
The year 2012 alone saw 43 state laws restricting abortion access through the imposition of complex and unnecessary requirements, including mandatory waiting periods and counseling, stricter parental notification guidelines that replaced already-strict rules, invasive ultrasounds, and onerous (and medically superfluous) clinic requirements. These laws were passed even though a majority of Americans support abortions in circumstances in which the mother's mental and/or physical health is at risk or there is a serious defect in the developing fetus. That reality is not reflected in current federal health insurance plans such as Medicaid, which only permits abortion in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at risk.
So here we are again, making the same declarations because we must. We have no choice but to speak out to preserve for women the right to choose.
One year ago, I wrote a piece on my blog in response to the contraception exception controversy related to the Affordable Care Act. At that time, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius was trying to be helpful and sensitive to people of all faiths, but her efforts were spurned by some of the very people whose concerns she tried hard to address.
What I wrote last year applies today – I will say this again and again as a guide for how we, as Americans, can guarantee freedom of choice for women and for people of all faiths or citizens who have no faith affiliation.
In my tradition, personhood begins when the head of a newborn baby emerges from the womb. In Judaism, what begins at conception is potential human life, not full human life. Throughout a pregnancy, the mother's life takes precedence. My tradition makes it possible to choose abortion in order to save a woman’s life OR to preserve her mental or physical health. This includes cases of rape or incest. By the way, within Judaism, rape is rape, with no further definitions or qualifications.
Because of my tradition, I am required to declare over and over that any public policy defining personhood as beginning at conception stands against my belief – and it would fail to recognize the beliefs of some other faith groups as well. A law with such a definition of life would constitute establishment of religion, which is prohibited by our Constitution. Such a definition of full human life fails to recognize the rights of women to consult with their doctors and, if desired, clergy or others advising them to arrive at their own difficult decision. This includes a right to have access to contraception for both men and women.
Just because a situation is complex, just because a choice is difficult, does not mean that the few, with one particular viewpoint, should impose what they believe is an easy answer upon the many. We all need freedom to think, to struggle, to wrestle with a decision when it relates to potential human life and whether a pregnancy should go forward to its miraculous conclusion. So we will speak out and and declare that we value life. We cherish the life of a mother who hopes for a successful and uneventful pregnancy. We support the life and well-being of a mother who faces a pregnancy that began as a result of an act of violence or abuse. We treasure life so much that we want children to be born happy and healthy, offering promise and hope for the future. And we believe that life in community means that we need to listen to each other so that we can live together, even in the presence of disagreement, with greater respect and understanding.