By Rabbi Hara Person and Rabbi Kelly Levy
Indiana. Oklahoma. Tennessee. Texas. These are just a few of the states that have been most recently terrorized by the war on reproductive rights and bodily autonomy that was set in motion last June when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and 50 years of precedent. Alongside our fellow Reform rabbis, we are devastated that the trigger bans in these states went into effect on Aug. 25, depriving millions of people of their right to reproductive and abortion services — and their religious freedom.
At the time of the Supreme Court’s decision on Roe in June, 13 states, including the ones listed above, had laws restricting abortion that were “triggered” upon the court’s decision.
Over the last three months, these trigger bans have gone into place, and restrictions have expanded. Now, 17 states have bans on abortion, including 12 states in which there are no exceptions for rape or incest. The most popular argument in favor of these bans is a religious one — one that resides within the dogma of the Religious Right.
But despite what our court’s recent decisions may imply, the Religious Right is just one of many religions practiced throughout this country. What makes them the moral authority on reproductive rights?
Throughout centuries, Judaism has consistently been supportive of reproductive rights. Abortion, which is medical care, is a Jewish value as exemplified by the concept of kavod habriyot. Jewish tradition believes that the life and well-being of a living person takes precedence over the rights of a fetus. And we believe that each and every person deserves the right to make their own decisions about their own bodies.
But the views of Jews are not reflected, or even mentioned, in the recent trigger bans. Let’s take a look at Texas: one of the first states to implement trigger bans after the Roe decision. The state prohibits all abortions, with a narrow exception if it will save the life of the pregnant person or save them from “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.” But lack of clarity around the definition of the law has caused confusion among both medical providers and those seeking treatment, leading providers to refuse care and jeopardize the lives of people who are bleeding out for fear that they will be imprisoned for performing an abortion. If you compare that with Texas voters’ opinions on abortion, you’ll see that 60% of Texans believe in legalizing abortion in all or most cases, and only 11% favor a total ban.
The decisions encircling these bans are being made by a small group of politicians who do not reflect the diversity of our constituency and are out-of-tune with the country’s evolving values. Recent studies have shown that the vast majority of Jews (83%) support a person’s right to an abortion in all or most cases, which is unsurprising. But even the majority of the entire country — all religions included — believes that access to abortion should be guaranteed by the states.
To be clear, we are not advocating for Judaism to be included in state decisions. Rather the opposite actually. With the exception of “freedom to” or “freedom from” religion, we believe that religious views have no place in our government.
Not only are the recent bans forcing us and other opposing religions to accept the views of another, but they are forcing us to comply with the rules or face criminal consequences.
Where is our voice? Do all other people somehow matter less than the Religious Right zealots simply because we do not wield the same size megaphone?
As tempting as it may be, we will not stoop to their level. We will not say that our religion is better or more morally sound than theirs. Instead, we will do what we have always done: We will fight for freedom. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of bodily autonomy. We will not rest in our ongoing fight for reproductive rights and access to abortion, and we will continue to support all those who are disproportionately impacted by these abhorrent bans.
In our capacities as rabbis, we will continue to support our communities and those who seek reproductive care in any way that we can, whether that is through donations, travel or emotional support. We will call state legislators, reach out to politicians, attend local meetings and vote in our upcoming midterms against ballot measures that will restrict bodily autonomy. We will continue our partnerships with organizations that support and fight for reproductive rights. We will not let one religion dominate the religious discourse around abortion.
No one religion deserves authority over another. Despite what it may look like with the reversal of Roe and trigger ban implementations, the United States is a democracy, not a theocracy. It’s time that our country starts acting like it.
Rabbi Hara Person, current and first female chief executive of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), oversees lifelong rabbinic learning, professional development and career services, CCAR Press—liturgy, sacred texts, educational materials, apps and other content for Reform clergy, congregations and Jewish organizations—and critical resources and thought leadership for the 2,200 Reform rabbis who serve more than 2 million Reform Jews throughout North America, Israel and the world.
Rabbi Kelly Levy has served as the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas, since 2018. She is also a founding member and leader of SACReD (Spiritual Alliance of Communities for Reproductive Dignity).