How do we think about abortion?
Local academic’s piece in Masorti journal criticizes the ‘justification framework’
The Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, released in June, that overturned Roe v. Wade by deciding that the Constitution does not give women the right to have an abortion, is not news by now.
The fight has moved to the states, and each state that restricts the right to abortion has different rules and enforcement mechanisms, but almost all of them include exceptions from their abortion bans for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, or that pose threats to the lives of the women carrying them.
Just this week, the New York Times has run harrowing stories about women who already were mothers, wanted more children, and were devastated to learn that the fetuses they were carrying would not survive outside the womb and would endanger their own lives. And then they discovered that they could not get abortions, despite those exceptions.
They all lived in Texas, and the laws in Texas are so severe that doctors were afraid to provide even those abortions that the rules said they could perform.
That’s terrible, according to Michal Raucher of Teaneck — but it’s also irrelevant.
Those women should be able to get abortions because they want them, Dr. Raucher said, not because outside observers declare that according to some subjectively defined objective standard, they absolutely need them. It’s none of those outsiders’ business.
The argument that only women who fall within certain categories can get abortions is what Dr. Raucher calls the justification framework. The Conservative movement, to which she belongs, has relied on that framework — but it should not, she said.
Halacha demands otherwise.
Dr. Raucher teaches at Rutgers; she earned a Ph.D. in religious studies at Northwestern University and has a background in bioethics, specifically in reproductive ethics. She’s a past president of the Society of Jewish Ethics.
She’s just written an article in the inaugural issue of the revived Conservative movement journal, now called Masorti. Her piece is “From Justification to Justice: Calling for a New Conservative Movement Position on Abortion.”
In that piece, she defines the justification framework by writing: “This framework starts from the assumption that abortion is morally wrong but can be permitted — that is, justified — in certain circumstances.”
She started to think about abortion and halacha when it became clear that the Supreme Court, as it now is constituted, was going to reverse Roe. “I started to look at the primary texts that everyone uses, and then I turned to the Conservative movement’s teshuvot” — legal decisions — “to see what’s on the books — and I was thoroughly disappointed,” she said.
“I have been part of a research team for 18 months, interviewing Jews, Christians, and Muslims having abortions,” she continued. “There are five of us who are co-principal investigators.” One of them, her friend Rebecca Todd Peters, wrote a book called “Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice,” where “she defined the justification framework.” The argument is that once abortion is defined as unacceptable, as a default — and there are various historical and sociological as well as theological reasons for that — then only the exceptions matter.
“So I am reading the Conservative movement’s teshuvot with that framework in my head, and I realize that the rabbis are arguing from that framework as well. They’re saying that abortion is not okay except in certain circumstances.
“The teshuvot were written in the early 1980s, and then two more came out in 2000 and 2001. The were very much situated in their political and historical situation. They still matter because Conservative rabbis are turning to them, and they shape the teaching that they’re doing around abortion even today, and that shapes the discourse.
“So what I argue in this piece is that this position — that abortion is morally wrong but can be permitted or justified in certain circumstances — is ethically flawed, both because of its reliance on the justification framework and because it does not reflect the lived experience of abortion in the United States.
“And then I bring in a feminist ethical critique that suggests that the Conservative movement should revisit its teshuvot in a way that foregrounds the experiences of Jews who have had abortions.”
It’s true that it’s easier to feel sympathetic toward women who get abortions through the justification framework, Dr. Raucher said. “Those are people who have intended pregnancies and want to fulfill the gendered norms of motherhood, whereas we have a narrative about everyone else, and it is negative. They want ‘abortion on demand’; they’re acting irresponsibly. There’s a whole host of assumptions that have to do with race and gender and class and education.
“What people don’t realize is that for at least half of the abortions that occur in this country, women were using contraception during the month that they conceived. Contraception is not as reliable as we think it is. There are a ton of reasons why that narrative is problematic, even if you were to take racial and gender bias out of it.
“The teshuvot from the 1980s are full of those assumptions, and that is embarrassing to me. As a proud Conservative Jew, I want my social and ethical values to align with my Judaism. I think that many Conservative Jews don’t realize that these justification framework attitudes are so baked in, even though 83 percent of Jews support abortion in all or most cases.”
She recently taught a class about abortion at a rabbinic training institute organized by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s leading academic institution. “On the one hand, they feel like the teshuvot are irrelevant,” she said. “On the other hand, they recognized how the language of the teshuvot has seeped into how they teach about abortion.”
The religious perspective on abortion matters for many reasons. For one, “62 percent of the people who have abortions identify as religious, so it matters. I want to foreground the perspective of people who are pregnant.
“How do you think about it from a religious perspective?” Dr. Raucher asked. “If we think about birth and pregnancy as religious events — and for Jews, family is such a big thing — then we have to think about it from that perspective. Remember, about 60 percent of people who have abortions have a child already.
“And we have to reclaim the discourse. We have inherited an understanding that to be religious is to be antiabortion.” There are complex historical reasons for that; it was important for Jews to fit in as good Americans at a time when strong antiabortion feeling was leaking from the Catholic world into the wider Protestant one. Politics always matter.
“Every time we trot out the justification argument, we are limiting the strength of our support for abortion,” Dr. Raucher concluded. “We are coming out with a mixed message if we only support it only in the 25 percent of the cases when it involves people who otherwise would be thought of as ‘good women.’
“If we do that, we are not supporting abortion.”
Dr. Raucher’s full argument, along with other pieces of scholarship and opinion — some equally controversial, others far less so — are available in the new Masorti journal. Learn more masortijournal.org