15 June 2015

Israel’s Abortion Committees

JUNE 12, 2015 

I KNEW Israeli law required that all abortions be approved by a committee. I also knew that the procedure was widely accessible. I’d never heard of an Israeli woman being denied an abortion (as opposed to say, a divorce, which must be granted by the husband in a religious court).

So I never really gave it much thought, until I found myself sitting in front of such a committee, six weeks pregnant with a 5-month-old baby at home.

When I went to my gynecologist, all he could do was provide me with an ultrasound as proof of my pregnancy. “I don’t do abortions,” he told me. “The committees deal with them. You can call this number.”

Each committee includes a social worker and two doctors. The law stipulates four criteria, any of which is sufficient for approval: If the woman is below 18 or over 40; if the fetus is in danger; if the mother’s mental or physical health is at risk; or if the pregnancy occurs out of wedlock or is the result of rape or incest.

I am 33 and free of medical issues. But because my partner and I are not legally married, I felt some relief knowing that I had a clear ticket out. Still, I balked at the realization that I had to request permission.

The Pregnancy Termination Committee at the hospital near me operates for only a few hours twice a week. As I waited to register, it began to sink in: I had no control, no privacy and no anonymity over this intimate, difficult matter pertaining strictly to my own body. The idea that anyone but me had the power to decide my family’s fate and mine was harrowing. Israel’s abortion policy, it hit me, was the opposite of liberal.

Not that my request wasn’t granted. The doctors (one man, one woman, as per protocol) informed me as I walked through the door that I was “approved.”

There were no medical questions or examinations, no offers of information or assistance. It was cold, efficient bureaucracy. A nurse administered the abortion medically the next day.

I didn’t feel any stigma from the staff. But some committees might be more judgmental than others. Women who don’t fit the official criteria as I did tend to go through a more grueling, protracted process in which they are questioned further and at times even pressured not to go through with it. In Israel, social attitudes toward abortion vary depending on which religious or ethnic community you come from and live in.

Abortions became legal in Israel in January 1977, four years after Roe v. Wade, but the law does not recognize a woman’s right to make her own choice.

Terminating pregnancies is considered counterintuitive to Zionism, which requires a booming Jewish birthrate to buttress the nationalist claim on the land. The main impetus for legalizing abortion was concern about women’s health and the socioeconomic circumstances of large, poor families, particularly following the wave of Jewish immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. Reproductive autonomy for women was not an integral part of the legislators’ considerations.

Religious fundamentalists in Israel aren’t particularly vocal on the issue. Efrat, the major anti-abortion group in Israel, was founded in 1962 by a Holocaust survivor and originally called the Association for the Encouragement of the Increase in the Birthrate Among the Jewish People.

Jewish law actually permits abortion when the mother’s life is threatened because a fetus is not considered an autonomous entity. While Orthodox Jews believe in the injunction in the Book of Genesis to be “fruitful and multiply” and their political parties continue to oppose the easing of restrictions on abortion, Israel’s leaders do not have to contend with radical anti-abortion groups the way the American government does.

The most recent figures show that, in practice, 98 percent of abortion requests in Israel are approved. But of the approximately 40,000 abortions performed each year, only around half go through the committees.

The other estimated 20,000 are being conducted illegally, through doctors at private clinics, not at home or in alleyways. There are plenty of doctors you can find online at the click of a button. While they are theoretically subject to punitive legal measures, their patients are not — and the authorities simply look the other way.

Many illegal abortions are thought to involve married women. These women may fear rejection of their applications, or that the invasive committee process will take too long and they want to put the ordeal behind them as quickly as possible. In certain cases, if the pregnancy is a result of an extramarital affair, some women may feel the need to lie to the committee about their infidelity and thus prefer to take care of matters privately without having to explain themselves to anyone.

A 2014 reform to the national health coverage law offers free abortions to all women between 20 and 33 regardless of circumstance. The move is aimed at helping married women who had affairs but are financially dependent on their husbands, or young women who can’t afford the procedure and don’t want to ask family or friends for help.

But with half of abortions almost always approved and the other half conducted illegally, the committees are clearly gratuitous and archaic.

A bill proposed in 2006 by the left-wing Meretz party sought to get rid of the committees, but it was rejected. Some abortion rights advocates fear that passing such a law would draw a sharp reaction from religious parties — now a dominant force in the new government — suddenly making it a hot-button issue that could upend the status quo.

Although Israel is often seen as relatively progressive on abortion because a vast majority of women are able to terminate their pregnancies, the situation here is actually the inverse of most Western countries, where abortion is lawful and largely free of restrictions. Israel’s policy may be better than countries where abortions are strictly prohibited (like Brazil and Egypt), or where exceptions are made only to save a woman’s life (like Ireland), but it is far from being liberal.

Israel’s policy sends a message to women that while the state will facilitate our abortions in practice, it refuses – in principle — to grant us the freedom to make that decision ourselves. And that is an infringement of our basic rights to bodily integrity and privacy.

Often, when faced with criticism of Israel’s human rights record, its leaders and supporters like to boast about the country’s progressive credentials — its free press, its robust L.G.B.T. community and the increasing number of women serving in combat.

But you don’t often hear much about its abortion policy. Now I know why.

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