Reproductive Choice: A Jewish View

By Bonnie Margulis

In August of 1992, my husband and I (both newly ordained rabbis) moved to Staunton, Virginia, a small town in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. Our first week there, we were greeted by the newspaper headline, "Field of Blood Dedicated." A fundamentalist church on the highway to Charlottesville, with a grassy pasture overlooking the highway, had planted 4,400 blood red crosses surrounded by a white picket fence. A billboard overlooking the highway read, "Field of Blood. 4,400 babies killed in America every day!" Women were encouraged to go the pasture, purchase tiny brassplaques to be inscribed with a name for an aborted fetus, and put the plaque on one of the crosses.

The Religious Right would like the American public to believe that to be religious is to be antichoice. In reality, religious leaders worked toward legalizing abortion for years before Roe v. Wade (1973). In the 1960s, horrified by the injuries and death suffered by women around the country due to illegal and unsafe abortions, religious leaders responded as people of faith and conscience must. Reverend Howard Moody and Arlene Carmen organized the first Clergy Consultation Service in New York City, a network of clergy who agreed to help women gain access to safe abortion providers. Similar services soon developed throughout the country.

During this time the progressive movements of Judaism began to advocate for a liberalization of abortion laws. The pro-choice stance taken by the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, and Humanist movements of Judaism stems from our earliest sacred traditions and from our own experiences of religious freedom in this country.

Of vital importance to the American Jewish community is the integrity of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion. This one sentence in the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" has been the foundation for the success of the Jewish community in this country. Without this guarantee, we would be mere guests in America, as we have been in so many other countries throughout our history, living at the sufferance of our rulers and of our neighbors.

This right to religious freedom is eroded by the Religious Right's efforts to have its own narrow view of when life begins become law. For example, the law in question in the 1989 Supreme Court case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services contained in its preamble the statement that "life begins at conception." The Supreme Court allowed that statement to stand. Judaism teaches that life begins at birth. Thus, the Webster decision struck at the very heart of the constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state. Similar attempts by the Religious Right threaten to strip away once and for all our right as Jews to believe and practice our own religious teachings.

Finally, because we are talking about much more than abortion, because we are talking about the social and economic injustices in our society that make abortion necessary (and so often make it inaccessible to those who need it) I believe we are commanded by God, the prophets, and our own moral consciences to stand up and speak out to ensure justice and freedom of choice for all. There are only two instances where we are actively enjoined to seek out opportunities to fulfill a particular commandment. They are "Seek peace and pursue it," and "Justice, justice, you shall pursue."

A few days after the "Field of Blood" headline appeared, a group of clergy and mental health professionals (including my husband and myself) formed the Shenandoah Friends of Planned Parenthood. When we as Jews advocate for reproductive freedom, we are pursuing justice for women and seeking peace among the diverse religious communities of this country. And this is truly holy work.

Note: This article was originally printed in the NCJW Journal: The Fight for Choice (Spring 2002).