It is always astonishing to see how abortion is played out as major political issue in the United States, a country where religion and state appear to be separated by law, while in Israel, where religion and state are entangled, it becomes just another one of those issues that affect women, along with women in the public sphere, women in peace negotiations, gender equality in the workplace, and of course the marriage, divorce, and conversion issues.
Last week, the Israeli Health Ministry committee that decides which state-funded health services and treatments will be offered to all Israeli citizens approved state funding for abortions for women aged 20 to 33. This is over and above the already free and legal
abortions offered to women who meet the following criteria:
• The woman is under the age of 17 or over the age of 40. (Minors under 18 do not need parental consent.)
• The pregnancy is a result of forbidden
relations: rape or incest, if she is unmarried (including divorced or widowed), or in the case of a married woman, the pregnancy is not her husband’s.
• The fetus has or is likely to be born with a physical or mental defect.
• Continued pregnancy is life threatening, or harmful physically or mentally to the mother or the child.
Just like that? With very little public debate or fanfare? I often wonder how such issues suddenly are worked on and solved. Is it because there has been a political deal made and something has been traded away? And if so what? (That appears not to be the case.) Is it because after decades of work by women’s organizations, public health organizations and social justice organizations on this issue that the committee members decided this was right and fair? Is it because there are no ultra-Orthodox parties in the government to advocate against it? Or is it because Israeli Health Minister Yael German is a woman who understands that this needed to get done? Or is it all of the above?
In any case, the committee’s decision to allow almost all women in Israel to have a needed or wanted free and legal early-stage medical abortion, induced with drugs or performed surgically, has now freed those women who wanted but could not afford the procedure and allowed them to exercise their right to choose. As with many such decisions, choosing abortion is not only a woman’s issue — it can be a societal, cultural, economic, or religious issue. We know that it is mostly young, unmarried, poor women — usually from minority populations such as the ultra-Orthodox, Bedouin, Arab, or Ethiopian communities — who do not have access to the funds for a private abortion. These are the most vulnerable citizens of Israeli society.
And while all state-funded abortion requests must be approved by a hospital committee, I am assuming that many Americans would love to have that requirement as the only obstacle to the right to choose. The hospital committee process is not optimal, and many women in fact lie about their reasons for an abortion, but of the 20,000 requests a year, 98 percent are granted.
Some critics may argue that allowing more state-funded abortions will perpetuate the use of abortions as birth control; I beg to differ. Allowing more state-funded abortions for ages 20-33 will allow those young, unmarried, poor and sometimes desperate women to decide their own fates and not give birth to unwanted children or children that cannot be cared for properly. It will protect those women from illegal abortion services and will return dignity to women and carve the way for a more just civil society, not just for women but for all its citizens.
Another step remains before women in Israel can be completely empowered to make decisions about their own bodies — coverage for birth control. Oddly, that is not yet in the basket of services approved for inclusion in health care as yet. So winning the battle for subsidized medical birth control — pills and hormonal IUDs — remains on the agenda for Israeli women.
Shari Eshet is the director of the Israel Office of the National Council for Jewish Women (NCJW,) a grassroots organization that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms in the U.S. and Israel.