By Barbara Dobkin
In 1966, I was a student at Boston University’s School of Social Work when I received a phone call from a college friend. She explained in hushed tones that she needed an abortion and thought I could help her.
At that time, I didn’t know anyone who had terminated a pregnancy; all I knew was that abortion was illegal. I quietly asked some classmates if they knew how to end a pregnancy safely. One of them had an answer.
It didn’t take long before I received the phone number for a doctor who performed abortions in a kitchen that functioned as an underground health clinic. “He won’t call you back unless you say the right word,” my classmate instructed me. I nervously left the doctor a message with the code word, knowing that my friend’s fate hung in the balance.
When the doctor called me back, I booked my friend an appointment. For $500, she terminated her pregnancy, regained her independence and moved on with her life. We never spoke of her abortion again.
My friend was lucky to have had a small community of resourceful people during an era when accessing an abortion was illegal and shrouded in fear, intimidation and shame. She was also lucky to be able to pay $500 — about $4,300 in today’s dollars — for a risky procedure and not suffer health complications.
I fear that we are approaching a time when secret abortions in makeshift kitchen clinics will become commonplace in the United States once again. According to a report published by the Guttmacher Institute in 2018, more than 22,000 women and girls worldwide die each year after having an unsafe abortion. Now, all signs suggest that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn or substantially erode Roe v. Wade, its landmark decision that legalized abortion in 1973.
If it does, at least 24 U.S. states would deem it illegal to receive or perform abortions. Consider the number of people who will die or suffer long-term health problems as a result of unsafe abortions if we return to a pre-Roe world.
I am a Jewish philanthropist who has supported many initiatives for the dignity of women in the American Jewish community, Israel and the broader world. I never thought I would live to see the day when abortion would become illegal once again. But here we are. I look around and wonder: Why are so few Jewish leaders speaking out?
Most Jews — 83 percent according to the Pew Research Center — favor abortion rights, making the Jewish community among the most progressive religious groups in the nation that support reproductive justice. Given that percentage, I would expect Jewish groups to use their influence to protect abortion access at this urgent moment in our history. And yet the vast majority of American Jewish organizations have been chillingly silent.
For years, I have pushed to make sure that issues affecting women and LGBTQ+ people become a central part of the Jewish communal agenda. But time and time again, I have been disappointed when Jewish institutions that aren’t explicitly serving women or LGBTQ+ people fail to prioritize — or entirely ignore — the needs, struggles and life experiences of more than half the Jewish population. It’s time for that to change.
Jewish women have an enduring legacy in advancing reproductive justice. The Jewish Women’s Archive documents that history in its digital collection “Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution” as well as in a recent podcast episode about The Jane Collective — an underground abortion counseling service in Chicago founded by Jewish activist Heather Booth that operated from 1969 to 1973, when abortion was illegal.
Similarly, Lilith Magazine has devoted many of its pages and blog posts to abortion access, spanning many decades. The 1981 issue of Lilith featured a cover story called “The Jewish Stake in Abortion Rights” with an image of two bent hangers that formed the shape of a Star of David. Hangers were frequently used to terminate pregnancies before Roe, and they remain dangerous (albeit accessible) tools even today.
Since its founding in 1893, the National Council for Jewish Women has been a leader in the reproductive health and rights movement. Recently, it launched the “Rabbis for Repro” campaign and convened a Jewish Abortion Access Coalition with partners inside and outside of the Jewish community. NCJW organized Repro Shabbat, an opportunity for congregations, organizations and communities to celebrate the critical importance of reproductive health and justice, and to learn more about Judaism’s approach to these issues.
I am grateful for all of these efforts. But the burden to mobilize Jews around abortion access should not fall to women and LGBTQ+ people alone. Leaders of the organized Jewish community — dominated by men — have never been shy in voicing outrage about crises that undermine our basic humanity, such as antisemitism and violence in Israel. Nor have they been shy in expressing anxiety about assimilation, intermarriage, infertility and Jewish continuity. But what about the crisis of losing the right to make decisions about our own bodies? Where is the communal outcry about that?
To be clear, I admire the brave Jewish leaders who have shared their abortion stories publicly in recent years. There are, no doubt, thousands of people in the Jewish community — rabbis and educators; donors and congregants; friends and neighbors — who have had abortions or will need them in the future. Their reasons may vary, but one thing remains true: Keeping abortion safe and legal reflects our most cherished Jewish values: pikuach nefesh (saving a life), briyut (health and safety), kavod (human dignity) and tzedek (justice).
So I call on every Jewish leader and institution — not just the ones run by and for women — to speak out boldly in defense of abortion access and safety. Our lives, our families and our futures depend on it.
When my friend who needed an abortion called me for help nearly 50 years ago, I know she felt profoundly afraid of what her future would look like if she were forced to become a mother before she was ready. I never want another friend of mine — or anyone — to experience that same fear, or face an even more dire outcome, or suffer the effects of an abortion done carelessly or without proper medical care.
The Jewish community knows how to stand up for dignity, justice and the health of those we love, including those who are strangers among us. We’ve done it before, and we must do it again.
Barbara Dobkin is donor-activis
t for programs to empower Jewish women and girls.
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