Though religion looms large in Israeli politics, every prominent voice in the country’s abortion debate calls itself pro-choice.
JERUSALEM — A billboard in central Tel Aviv features a black-and-white photo of a distressed woman above a caption in bold red letters that reads, “The pain and remorse from my abortion accompany me every day.”
The billboard is an advertisement for Efrat, an anti-abortion outfit that dubs itself “The Committee to Rescue Israel’s Babies” and offers financial support to pregnant women in an effort to persuade them not to terminate their pregnancies.
Efrat has never protested outside a gynecological clinic, nor has it sought to restrict Israel’s fairly liberal abortion laws. Last month, the organization supported a proposal to allow women to undergo abortions without first appearing before a state committee, as the law currently requires.
Efrat’s president, Eli Schussheim, describes himself as pro-choice, a position he adopts more from pragmatism rather than principle.
“If I tell a woman she has no right to abort, she’ll tell me to get out of here,” Schussheim said. “I said I’ll be pro-choice. It’s important to give counseling to women. I think laws don’t educate.”
From the Western Wall to the West Bank, religious issues dominate Israel’s political discourse. Orthodox parties make up a quarter of the Knesset and have sat in nearly every governing coalition since the state’s founding, using their political might to push for widely despised privileges that benefit Israel’s religious minority.
But while religion looms large in Israel, its abortion laws are, in practice, among the world’s most liberal. Though any woman who wants to terminate a pregnancy must demonstrate to a three-person committee that having the baby will cause her emotional or physical harm, or that the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, more than 99 percent of requests are approved.
Since Israel legalized abortions in 1977 — just four years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision galvanized conservative Christian opposition to abortion in the United States — there has been no significant movement to outlaw abortion. In January, the Knesset passed a law allowing government funding for nearly all abortions, some 40,000 of which are performed each year in the Jewish state.
Experts say Israel’s secular foundations, along with Jewish law’s relative ambiguity on abortion, have kept religious political parties mostly silent on the issue and led groups like Efrat to focus on preventing abortions rather than outlawing them. Aliza Lavie, a lawmaker who proposed abolishing abortion committees at a recent Knesset conference, said Israelis are pro-choice because they understand women don’t approach abortion flippantly.
“I think there’s an understanding here that we love children in Israel,” Lavie said. “When a woman already gets to that point [of wanting an abortion], she has just reasons. Israeli culture is very pro-kids.”
Traditional Jewish law doesn’t regard life as beginning at conception, and even mandates abortion if a mother’s life is in danger, so opposing abortion isn’t as high a priority for Israeli religious activists as it is for some of their American counterparts. Haredi Orthodox parties in the past have tried to outlaw late-term abortions, but the bills failed early and no religious party has made abortion a signature issue.
“In the world of the Catholic Church, an abortion is thought of as murder even in the early stages of pregnancy, but in Judaism it’s not so clear,” said Orthodox Rabbi Benny Lau, who attended the Knesset conference.
Absent a powerful anti-abortion movement, Israel’s abortion debate centers on technical policy questions such as who should say what to women seeking abortion or which abortions should be funded by the state.
Skeptical that it could ever get abortion outlawed, Efrat has focused instead on removing incentives for women to abort. According to Schussheim, 60 percent of Israeli abortions stem from financial concerns. So Efrat has mobilized a national network of 3,000 women volunteers who provide counseling during the pregnancy and, for those who need it, material support for the baby’s first two years — anything from a crib and stroller to monthly packages of diapers and wipes.
Efrat’s chief social worker, Ruth Tidhar, says the organization supports eliminating abortion committees for similarly practical reasons. Tidhar believes they don’t adequately inform women of the risks of abortion. Instead, she would like doctors to provide information about the medical risks and a required 72-hour waiting period to enable women to consider the information.
“It’s supposed to be a stopgap [to say] ‘Think about this, it’s a serious decision, it’s going to influence the rest of your life,’ ” Tidhar said. “I don’t believe that any woman goes to have an abortion without some degree of ambivalence and bad feelings.”
In supporting the abolition of the committees, Efrat has made common cause with the Israeli feminist organization Isha L’Isha — "woman to woman", which opposes the panels on principle as an impediment to a woman’s right to choose. Isha L’Isha also would like to see women receive more information about the procedure, as well as medical advice.
According to New Family, an Israeli organization that fights religious coercion in marriage, divorce and child care, half of Israel’s 40,000 annual abortions take place illegally, as women prefer to bypass the committees. Abolishing the committees, Lavie said, would remove the incentive to undergo an illegal abortion.
“Only the woman can say what’s best for her,” said Ronit Piso, Isha L’Isha’s women and medical technology coordinator. “Only she can make the judgement if it’s economic or anything else. We do think it’s important that women get advice and counseling on the medical implications and counseling on the process itself.”