“In response to the Leaked Opinion” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Wednesday night, I participated in an emergency call with the National Conference of Jewish Women (NCJW), organized in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.  The woman running the call first asked people to write in chat words to describe how they were feeling: outrage, anger, hopelessness, despair, fear.  (I asked people to share their feelings in the chat and in the congregation.)

The leaking of the document in and of itself is, of course, quite troubling as it is highly destructive to the integrity of the Court and its processes.

The decision itself is of great concern:

1.  it points to the increasing politicization and partisan nature of the Court;

2.  it undermines our faith in the Court and its commitment to preserving stated law, especially for that which has been in place for half a century – a principle also affirmed in the confirmation hearings of the most recently appointed justices; and

3.  there is real fear that stated law for other protections affirmed under right to privacy – the right to contraception, same-sex marriage – even interracial marriage – may also be overturned.

It is not hard to imagine states where conservative majorities gaining hold in legislatures –

states enacting laws curtailing rights of the transgender, would take the next step to reverse the right for same sex marriage.

It is no longer inconceivable in states where the influence of groups supporting white supremacist philosophy are gaining strength could reach the point of banning interracial marriage.

Did we think we would see book banning in public schools, limitations on what teachers could teach?  I call your attention to the upcoming Board of Education elections on May 17th where individuals supporting these efforts are running for positions.

These are all very real causes for concern and action.

But my attention tonight is on the essence of this potential decision, a subject which I know I have addressed a number of times before but current circumstances demand that it be addressed once again:  the implications of overturning Roe V. Wade for the rights of people who able to get pregnant (in addition to women, we must also include transgender and non-binary people), to control their own bodies; to have access to full, safe health care; to make one of the most painful, personal decisions of their lives in private, in consultation with loved ones, their medical practitioners, with those whom they choose for guidance  – without fear of government interference or retribution. 

While abortion is still legal and a constitutional right, if this draft opinion becomes a reality in a few months

  • 26 states could swiftly move to ban abortion–including 13 states with laws that could immediately go into effect. That means in half the country, people would no longer have power over their own bodies and their own lives.
  • 36 million people — nearly half of the women of reproductive age (18-49) in the United States — plus people who can become pregnant, could soon lose abortion access.
  • 58% of women 13–44 live in a state hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights.
  • 24% of people who can get pregnant in the US will have an abortion by age 45. *

In addition to the violation of the right to health care and choice over one’s body, overturning Roe v. Wade is also a violation of religious freedom as the government is imposing one religion’s belief over all others, including those that disagree with it.  It is a violation of my religious freedom because Judaism not only supports the right to abortion, at times it demands it. 

Judaism is very clear that life begins at birth, not at conception.  Our sacred texts, beginning with Torah, through Mishnah and Talmud and medieval codes, rule that until birth, the mother’s life and health must take precedence over that of the fetus.  Though a potential life, the fetus is not a living being, it has no rights, nor is it considered as something separate and apart from the woman.  Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.  Certainly, differences arise among the interpreters of Jewish law and between the denominations about how broadly one may define the mother’s health or the situations in which an abortion would be appropriate.  Our Reform movement has consistently taken strong stands in support of reproductive choice and access to reproductive health care.     

Reproductive rights are also a matter of economic and racial justice. We know that those with financial means will always have access to safe abortion, even if it will become more challenging and costly to obtain.  Abortion restrictions and bans disproportionately hurt those who already face discriminatory obstacles to health care, including Black, indigenous, and People of Color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, young people, people with disabilities, and lower-income individuals.  Time and again, our tradition demands that we take responsibility for the disenfranchised in society, “that we care for the stranger,” that we act with justice.  So many of these teachings are articulated in the very Torah portion we read this week, Kedoshim, the holiness code and re-enforced throughout the teachings of the prophets.

In the draft opinion, Justice Alito writes that this decision should be in the hands of the people.    While half of the states are poised to ban or severely limit access to abortion, poll after poll demonstrate that the majority of Americans favor reproductive rights.   83% of Jews support the right to abortion. **

I’ve been thinking about the disconnect between the people’s desires, state legislation and this monumental decision of the Supreme Court and I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare.  In this case, those of us who are pro-choice seem to be in the role of hare.  With the decision of Roe V. Wade, later affirmed in Casey in 1992, we thought we had won this race and secured reproductive rights.  But the anti-choice camp, from the moment they usurped the term “pro-life”, has been working hard like the tortoise, slowly, strategically, planning and moving forward – building a single-issue constituency, fiercely committed to electing local and national legislators who will, step by step, enact laws first restricting and now eliminating reproductive rights and, as we’ve seen, appointing judges who will support such legislation.  The majority in this country who support reproductive rights have been silent for too long.  Yes, there have been moments when we’ve raised our voices and marched in Washington, but we have not been there consistently.  And while I would never endorse being single-issue in our voting practices, it is quite clear that this issue has not been high enough on the agenda of those who support reproductive rights.

There are actions that we can — indeed, that we must – take to ensure reproductive justice for all in our country.

The Women’s Health Protection Act would essentially codify Roe, protecting the right to access legal abortion care across the country by providing safeguards against state bans and medically unnecessary hurdles.  Thought it passed in the House in September, it was defeated in the Senate in March.  A modified version of the bill, with changes in some of the language though not the guarantees, is being brought to the floor on Tuesday.   It is pretty clear that it will not pass – the filibuster has once again raised its head and there is neither enough support to overturn the filibuster nor to support the bill.  Nonetheless, supporters believe that it is important to move forward with the vote to have it on the record, especially for those Senators up for re-election.   Sen. Schumer and Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the bill and Sen. Schumer, as majority leader, is working hard to try to get it passed; they still need to hear from voices of support in their state.  Through the Religious Action or the Women of Reform Judaism websites you can send an email thanking them for their efforts.

While we can proudly say that New York is among those states that have enshrined reproductive rights into law, we cannot sit back on those laurels and ignore the lives and health of so many in our nation that are now at risk.   Our parsha, Kedoshim, reminds us of our responsibility to those outside of our own immediate circle, with that clarion call to “not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.”  Gov Hochul has invited anyone in need of an abortion to come to NY where they will be welcomed and cared for.  Our clinics will need extra staff and funding to meet those needs.  While thanking the Governor, we must also demand state funding to support that call.

The NCJW is organizing a Jewish Pro-Abortion Rights Rally in Washington DC on May 17th (the same day as our local school board elections, unfortunately).  Weather permitting and it is outside, it will be livestreamed.   We were also told that there will be rallies throughout the country sponsored by coalitions of abortion rights supporters on May 14th.  Please keep a look out and I will share any information I get.  Steps for further action will certainly be forthcoming.

Our most important voice as US citizens is the voice of our vote.  If we want to ensure reproductive justice for all in this country, we need to use that vote to elect leaders who will support and advocate for that essential right.

I close with words of poetry, written in response to the leaked draft, by Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in LA.  It is entitled, “Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed” and is styled after the Viddui, the confessional prayer recited just before Yom Kippur.  In her powerful words, she reminds us of all that is at stake in this battle for reproductive justice:

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman with kidney disease whose doctors say her pregnancy is
life threatening,
the woman who has high blood pressure whose doctors say her
pregnancy may kill her,
the woman with clinical depression and suicide ideation who is criminalized for saving herself,

the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of heavy spotting,
the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of an irregular period,
the girl who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because she has only just started puberty,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman suffering an ectopic pregnancy who is called “murderer”
on her way to her appointment,
the parents who are told their baby will be born with anencephaly,
without a brain, and are called “murderers,”
the woman who is told there is no heartbeat and is called “murderer”
on her way to the clinic,

the woman who miscarries and is criminalized because she cannot
prove it was natural,
the parent who is told that if born, their baby will live in excruciating pain and won’t survive past infancy,
the girl who is ostracized, shamed and criminalized
while he who impregnates her is free,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the family who doesn’t have health insurance
and barely survives paycheck to paycheck,
the woman living in a rural, remote town who cannot afford
the transportation, hotel and time off for a procedure,
the partner who loses their job for taking the days needed
to travel over state lines for their spouse’s care,
the children who are not taught sex education and are not
given access to birth control,
the families who are not given paid parental leave or affordable childcare,
the woman who religiously took birth control to prevent pregnancy,
but the birth control failed,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman who is a victim of reproductive coercion
by a domestic abuser,
the woman who is impregnated as a victim of sex trafficking,
the girl who is impregnated through sexual violence
and then retraumatized by the court,

the girl who is overpowered by a relative or person of authority,
the woman of color who faces racial and ethnic disparity in medicine, and less access to quality contraceptive services,
the Ukrainian woman refugee who was raped by the same Russian soldier who murdered her children,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the mother who is imprisoned for acquiring misoprostol
to end her teen daughter’s traumatic pregnancy,
the mother who is imprisoned for having an abortion in order to better feed and care for her children,
the woman who is imprisoned for terminating a pregnancy
that was not conceived in love,

the daughter who suffers long-term agony from terminating her pregnancy in unhygienic environments, at the hands of untrained individuals,
leaving her to suffer vaginal and rectal tearing, future infertility,
uterine perforations, hemorrhage, sepsis, blunt trauma, poisoning, and ruptured bowel, the daughter who is too scared to ask for help and dies of torturous infection and blood loss from the rusty tools
of a medical charlatan, the daughter who doesn’t have any reason
to trust lawmakers and adults, and suffers excruciating, unnecessary death.

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

For all of our failures to protect you, our daughters, mothers,
partners and friends,
Don’t forgive us. Don’t pardon us. Don’t lead us to atonement.

* statistics are from the Guttmacher Institute

** from NCJW