Congress should support reproductive health rights abroad

Keep abortion legal sign at Supreme Court
(Photo by Joel Carillet / Getty Images)

By Rabbi Eve Posen

None of us will likely forget where we were when the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated Roe v. Wade. I was home watching the “Today Show” with my family when a newscaster interrupted the programming. I started crying and had to explain to my 9-year-old daughter why I was so upset. I was shocked, gutted and angry knowing that this ruling was going to be a further blow to people around the world.

Just when the international trajectory was bending toward liberalizing abortion, the United States made an egregious about-face. President Joe Biden’s recent executive order protecting access to reproductive health care services is a welcome first step in reaffirming our nation’s conviction to support sexual and reproductive health rights at home. Congress now has an opportunity to send the same message to those abroad — and we can help.

Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill), Tina Smith (D-Minn.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) recently introduced the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act. This measure would permanently repeal the Helms amendment, a harmful policy that bars U.S. foreign assistance from funding abortion services around the world. As this measure now makes its way through the Senate, we can help build real momentum around this repeal — and I believe our faith calls us to action.

In the Torah (and subsequent legal texts like the Talmud), there are in-depth conversations about when life begins — from 40 days in utero to when the newborn takes its first breath. All the texts, however, focus on the health and safety of the mother and tell us the life of the mother is to be preserved.

As a rabbi, I believe the Helms amendment, with its limitations on health care dollars, is a direct affront to my ability as a Jew to hold when life begins. It violates the precept of saving the life of the mother and stands in direct violation of separation of church and state (when Catholic archbishops start comparing abortion to the Holocaust, we have clearly crossed that line).

The Helms amendment also smacks of hypocrisy. Our government claims to fight for justice for marginalized peoples, yet our laws do not value their lives. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of Jewish ideology, as moral and ethical people, we should feel compelled to help others access safe health care. And one way to do so is by calling our senators and encouraging them to pass the Abortion is Health Care Everywhere Act.

Each year, 35 million women around the world are forced to seek out unsafe abortions, and millions suffer life-altering injuries and even die as a result. The Helms amendment exacerbates these harms, even in countries where abortion is legal. For nearly 50 years, this policy has been incorrectly applied as a total ban on U.S foreign assistance for abortion care. In reality, the Helms amendment restricts aid for abortions as a “method of family planning.” Abortions in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment do not fall within this category. Yet, due to misinformation and the stigma around this policy, many health care providers are denied the resources to provide quality and compassionate care. The result: People are not getting the life-saving medical care and the basic health information they need.

The inherent danger of the Helms amendment goes beyond cis women. Queer women, trans men and sex workers are more likely to experience unintended pregnancies as a result of sexual violence. These marginalized communities also need abortion services. If the Helms amendment remains intact, safe reproductive health care will remain out of reach. It is all unconscionable. This lifesaving funding should not come with a value judgment. That is not what a democracy is supposed to do. If our nation’s leaders truly believe in religious freedom, then our global health assistance shouldn’t be tied to evangelical and fundamentalist Christian views or those of any other faith. Reproductive health care should be left up to the medical professionals and the people whom it impacts.

As a Jewish faith leader, it is important to me to teach the next generation to respect the full spectrum of what it means to be human, and to speak out against any injustices around us. The Torah teaches that every person is created in the image of God, betzelem Elohim, and as such we are implored to not stand idly by when harm is being done. We see Abraham and Moses stand up and say “hineini” (here I am), for the difficult task of being moral leaders. It is time for us to say hineini because reproductive healthcare is essential to sacred humanity.

Shortly after the Roe decision, I delivered a sermon about Korach, who plots a revolt against Moses and the priestly leadership because the Israelites didn’t have enough of a say in their destiny. I told the congregation that if there are injustices, atrocities, corruption, they should call them out, but that if they really wanted to change the world, they must take action. “Our country was founded when people decided to act,” I told them. “It was founded on the idea that we could decide our own destiny. That we could have a say.”

As we find ourselves with an opportunity to repeal the Helms amendment, I will ask the same question that I posed to them: “What will you say?”

Rabbi Eve Posen serves Congregation Neveh Shalom in Portland, Ore.

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