Abortion rights activists rejoice in front of the Supreme Court in Washington after the justices struck down a strict Texas anti-abortion restriction law known as HB2, on June 27, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Why Roe v. Wade is a First Amendment fight

(RNS) — During the wave of state abortion bans passed this spring, elected officials around the United States routinely invoked God and religion to justify stripping individuals of the constitutional right to make decisions about our own bodies. When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed the most restrictive anti-abortion measure in the country, she described it as a “powerful testament” to the belief that “every life is a sacred gift from God.” When Florida Rep. Walter Bryan "Mike" Hill sponsored a similar bill in his state, he said it was sent to him by God.

Yet if I were seeking an abortion right now, my rabbi would tell me that according to Jewish law, life does not begin at conception, that a fetus is not considered an individual with its own rights and that abortion care is actually health care. For Jews who can become pregnant, reproductive freedoms are our religious freedoms, guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

For the past 47 years, since Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, these freedoms have been protected. As we commemorate Roe’s anniversary today, they now hang in balance.  

Just this month, more than 200 (overwhelmingly male and Republican) members of Congress petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade when it decides June Medical Services v. Gee, a case concerning a restrictive Louisiana law that the court will consider this spring. The legislators described Roe as a “radically unsettled precedent” that is “unworkable." A few days later, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts declared Jan. 22, Roe’s anniversary, a statewide day of prayer “to end abortion.”

For Jews, abortion isn’t only a workable choice; it is a choice guided by our religion.

We rarely hear elected officials cite the Torah in debates over reproductive freedom. The Jewish community is generally not included in this conversation at all. If we were, we’d share the story from the Book of Exodus that recounts a fight between two men that injured a pregnant woman, leading to her miscarriage. The verses in Exodus indicate that the offender is not liable for murder, but instead pays only damages for injury. This passage led the rabbinic sages who shaped our tradition to conclude that the fetus is not, in fact, a person. 

According to Jewish law, abortion is not only permitted; it is required if a pregnancy endangers the life or health of the pregnant individual. Many rabbis and Jewish feminists agree that this applies to psychological health as well as physical health. No one should be forced to carry a fetus to term if she does not feel physically or emotionally ready.

So when a small and loud group of the religious Christian right claims abortion as a religious freedom issue, we ask: Whose religious freedom are we talking about?

Judaism isn’t the only religion to permit abortion. In an amicus brief to June Medical Services v. Gee submitted to the Supreme Court by the National Council of Jewish Women, a broad range of religious organizations argued that they believe that a woman has the moral right to make her own decisions about her pregnancy in accordance with her faith and conscience. They included Catholics for Choice, Presbyterians Affirming Reproductive Options and Muslims for Progressive Values.

Faith groups have been on the front lines of the fight for reproductive rights, health and justice for decades, since long before Roe was decided.

In the years before Roe, clergy members played a critical role in helping women access reproductive health care. In 1967, a group of rabbis and Protestant ministers in New York City created the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion. It rapidly grew into a national underground network of faith leaders who counseled and referred people to licensed doctors for safe abortions. By some estimates, they helped between 250,000 and 1 million women across the country, insisting on compassion, justice and dignity for all.

We understand that those who restrict access to abortion often cite religious beliefs as their motivation. We know that the U.S. Constitution supports freedom of religion and demands that no one impose a single religious viewpoint on all. But religious liberty, according to Jewish tradition, honors individuals’ rights to both freedom of and freedom from religion. It is a protective shield, not a weapon used to harm others.

We should be celebrating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. We should not have to be fighting to uphold it. But people of faith are ready for the fight. And I pray we’ll win it.

(Sheila Katz is the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, the 125-year-old progressive nonprofit fighting to protect women’s reproductive health, rights and justice. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)