Published September 12, 2016
And the King of Egypt spoke to the Hebrew midwives . . . Shifra and Puah . . . If it be a son, then ye shall kill him . . . But the midwives feared God, and did not as the king of Egypt commanded them, but saved the men children alive. – Exodus I, 15.
Forcing women to undergo abortions against their will is a form of abuse. We are all agreed on that, right? Perhaps. Hillary Clinton, an ardent abortion rights party-liner, has denounced the “forced abortions” the Chinese communist government inflicts on women.
But glance at the leading feminist organization websites and you find no mention of this form of cruelty toward women. The dominant theme of feminist thinking is victimization. Women are said to suffer discrimination in the classroom, on sports fields, in the military, in the workplace, and even, or perhaps especially, within the family.
Leaving aside whether this vision of women as victims is true, exaggerated, or false, when it comes to abortion, it betrays a gigantic blind spot. Coercing women into aborting babies they want is clearly not government policy in the United States, but women are often the victims of male pressure to abort babies. Feminists, so exquisitely sensitive to male pressure on women in every other context, avert their eyes on this.
Jewish women are particularly keen feminists and have always been in the vanguard of abortion advocates. A Gallup poll found that among major religious groups in America, Jews are far more similar to the non-religious than they are to adherents of other leading faiths on the subject of abortion. While 38 percent of Catholics, 33 percent of Protestants, and 18 percent of Mormons believe that abortion is “morally acceptable,” a full 76 percent of Jews believe so, more than the 73 percent of the non-religious who agree.
Among the estimated 10 percent of America’s Jews who are Orthodox, views about abortion are thought to be more conservative, though good polling is difficult to find. A 2015 Pew survey of Orthodox Jews found that the Orthodox resembled white Evangelical Protestants more than they resembled Conservative or Reform Jews. The Orthodox also comprise a growing share of the American Jewish population, with a median age of 40 compared with 52 for the overall Jewish community, and with an average of 4.1 children per couple compared with 1.7 for other Jews. For the present though, Reform Jews remain the majority.
Leading Jewish communal organizations like the National Council of Jewish Women, Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Hillel, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations are vocal supporters of abortion rights.
What zealous advocacy to limit legal restrictions on abortion has done, certainly within the Jewish community, is blind people to the needs of women who want to give birth but face difficult personal circumstances.
Such is the power of the feminist, abortion-as-empowerment narrative that many Jews, like many secular Americans, are put off by the very discussion of crisis pregnancies. In Shifra’s Arms, a fledgling Jewish pregnancy support organization, is pushing abortion politics to the background and stepping in to help pregnant women with that other choice—the choice to become mothers.
When ISA debuted, it was greeted with deep suspicion in the Jewish world. Efforts to raise funds proceeded at a glacial pace, though the Jewish community gives generously to charities of nearly every other description. The United Jewish Appeal, for example, boasts that it supports programs for the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled, at risk children, and the sick, among dozens of other categories.
Perhaps suspecting that In Shifra’s Arms was an anti-abortion group, Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, condemned it, declaring that the NCJW was “greatly concerned about pregnancy crisis centers and their focus to limit women’s choice and undermine the rights of women.” Alyssa Zucker, professor of psychology and women’s studies at George Washington University, was equally dismissive: “While these organizations say they are about choice,” she told the Washington Jewish Week, “they are really not. Their goal is to convince women not to have abortions.”
In fact, In Shifra’s Arms was merely attempting to fill a gap. Abortion is readily available. There are even Jewish charities that help women to pay for abortions. What about the Jewish women who were being pressured into abortions? What about those who were abandoned by husbands or boyfriends? Until ISA opened its doors, there was no American Jewish organization dedicated to helping women who wanted their babies. (Israel has more than one organization to assist women who want to give birth.)
ISA was the brainchild of a former Department of Labor official Erica Pelman, an Orthodox mother of three who was stricken when a close friend had shared her heartbreak at feeling forced to abort a baby because she had received no support from her family or the Jewish community.
Pelman gathered a small band of women in Washington, DC to step into the breach. All volunteers, they would provide counseling, emotional support, money, networking, childcare assistance, and other services to pregnant Jewish women who sought their help. With contributions from their friends and families, free legal advice, and services from accountants, social workers, and others, ISA began to advertise on the Internet and provide a sympathetic ear to women desperate for guidance.
In time, ISA was able to raise sufficient funds for a part-time licensed social worker, Fraida Nathan. In Shifra’s Arms does not attempt to discourage women from seeking abortions—some women who have sought ISA’s help have indeed chosen abortion—but does provide critical encouragement and assistance to those who want an alternative. The board of In Shifra’s Arms includes Jewish women who consider themselves pro-life and pro-choice, and their religious identification ranges from Orthodox to unaffiliated.
The women who sought help were not what the small band of women who launched ISA were expecting. Most were not unmarried teenagers or college women but women in their twenties, thirties, and sometimes forties. Some 20 percent were married, and about 28 percent were in abusive (sometimes violently abusive) relationships. That is the great untold story of abortion—in many, many cases it is not an expression of women’s autonomy at all, but a brutal imposition upon them.
A 2010 study of “intimate partner violence” sponsored by the Alan Guttmacher Institute found that “coerced abortion” was one form of abuse women reported, along with coerced pregnancy. The Daily Beast described one of the study participants:
A 21-year-old woman is in a relationship with a man who repeatedly tells her he wants to get her pregnant. Even though he is physically abusive, she too, wants to have a baby with him. But a few months into her pregnancy, he changes his mind. He threatens to punch her in the stomach to induce an abortion, or to throw her down the stairs if she doesn’t have one. Because he has been violent so many times before, she doesn’t want to risk it. So, five months pregnant, she goes to a clinic and has the abortion.
Often the women who contact ISA have already experienced abortion once.
A 42-year-old married immigrant from Russia with older children had not expected to be pregnant again. Her husband, a truck driver, was tyrannical and difficult. Money was tight. He was so insistent that she abort the child that he left the family home for a week. When he returned, he actually drove her to the abortion clinic. She sat immobilized in the car. “I’d done it before,” she told Nathan, “and I just couldn’t do it again. Even if my husband divorces me, I cannot do it.”
She turned to In Shifra’s Arms, where she found sympathy and then tangible help. The first step was helping the client to decide what her own wishes were. Since money was tight, the mother elected to get certified as an X-ray technician. In Shifra’s Arms helped her with funds for babysitting for two semesters.
Her husband did not divorce her, and in time, was happy about the new addition to the family. All are now doing well and are grateful to ISA.
Another client was in her 30s when she contacted ISA. An Israeli, she was living in the United States with her American boyfriend. When he learned of her pregnancy, he angrily demanded that she get an abortion. Worried that this might be her last chance to become a mother, she refused. Her parents were both dead, but she did have an uncle in America. A secular liberal and abortion advocate, he chided her for getting pregnant in the first place and urged her to abort. When she declined, he refused any assistance. “You did this to yourself,” he said. “Don’t come to me.”
Her boyfriend seemed to agree. Her unwillingness to abort was an affront. The abuse was first emotional and then eventually physical. (Some men beat their wives or girlfriends in hopes of inducing an abortion.) It became so extreme that she moved out. The local women’s shelter was full, and while she had stayed with friends for a time, she felt she couldn’t impose for too long. Out of options, she turned to a Christian crisis pregnancy center. There, she was safe, but uncomfortable. The center featured Christian worship, which was awkward. Through an Internet search, she discovered In Shifra’s Arms. ISA cooperated with a local Chabad rabbi to find the pregnant woman a place to live for three months, and linked her with a domestic violence group. They advised her to return to Israel before the child’s birth. In Shifra’s Arms paid for her plane ticket and two months rent in Israel along with psychological counseling. She delivered a healthy baby boy. Her child, she reported from Israel, was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
The assistance In Shifra’s Arms provides varies from client to client, depending upon need. One woman who had older children was provided with housekeeping help for several months, which made a world of difference to her. Another, “Dawn,” a single woman in her late thirties, was just a few weeks pregnant when her boyfriend was killed in a car accident. She badly wanted the baby but felt utterly alone. “My family was not supportive,” she confided. ISA’s counselor saw that her first need was grief counseling. Nathan was then able to provide guidance for obtaining baby furniture and other resources. Like other clients, “Dawn” received a care package that contained the book What To Expect When You’re Expecting, a maternity store gift card, and other pampering items. ISA found a social work intern to accompany the client to doctor’s appointments, which relieved her sense of loneliness and isolation. With ISA’s aid, she also found other financial resources. “I never thought there would be a place that would help me,” she marveled.
In addition to care packages, all ISA clients get non-judgmental emotional support, advice, and referrals to social service agencies and other resources. ISA keeps in touch throughout the pregnancy and during the child’s first year. For indigent women, the ISA counselor will often phone a local rabbi and ask whether members of the congregation might be able to donate strollers, basinets, cribs, car seats and other baby essentials. In “Dawn’s” case, because the delivery was by C-section, ISA paid for a doula to spend the first two weeks after birth with mother and daughter.
A number of women who’ve been assisted by ISA have written movingly about the experience. A woman from New Jersey wrote: “I’d like to take a moment to thank you for everything you have done and continue to do. Support is not very widespread for me right now so I really appreciate you from the bottom of my heart. Once again, thank you, thank you, thank you for everything you do. Your heart is what the world needs more of.” Another described the phone counselor as an “angel sent from Heaven.”
Unintended pregnancy happens to many couples, even those with graduate degrees and impressive resumes. One woman who contacted ISA was working toward her engineering degree and living with her boyfriend who was in medical school. Their relationship seemed solid until the pregnancy. Feeling too pressured by medical school to handle fatherhood, he demanded that she abort. She was stunned and taken aback by how tyrannical he became. The ISA counselor helped her to work through her own feelings—her fear of losing him as well as her longing for the baby. In time, with help, the boyfriend relented and apologized. They agreed that she would delay her engineering degree for a while and do the lion’s share of baby care.
The full range of human drama and fickle fate comes through ISA’s doors. Some women have experienced infertility and worry that an unintended pregnancy may be their last chance at motherhood despite a boyfriend’s reluctance. Some are struggling with abandonment, abuse, or shame. Others are worried about money and how they will manage alone. Most already feel attached to the baby growing inside them. All are hoping for some sort of miracle to let them escape from the abortion clinic’s tragic “solution.”
The women ISA has reached have been offered the assistance and the wherewithal to choose their heart’s desire—to give birth. Surely that is an overlooked women’s issue.
Mona Charen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and syndicated columnist.