Friday, August 31, 2012

A matter of choice

These are difficult times to be a feminist. Whether its members of the Republican Party or members of your own family (as it was in my case--I responded here), the news and discussion surrounding women's reproductive rights is quite maddening and dispiriting. Battles we all thought were won years ago--access to birth control, the right to end a pregnancy--are still being contested.

As I wrote last week, Judaism has a more lenient take on abortion than Christianity. Causing the death of a fetus is not a capital offense. In the Exodus 21:22, this hypothetical is presented:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman's husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. 

What we have here is outside forces causing the death of a fetus. Grounds for a murder charge? Hardly. Manslaughter? Not even that. If it was manslaughter, the assailant would have to flee to a City of Refuge because the family could legally kill him. All this man has to do is pay a fine to the woman's husband because the unborn baby, like the woman herself, was legally his property anyway.

The Jewish position on abortion has evolved beyond this, of course, because you can't just simply count on someone to knock you down a flight of stairs and toss some money your way. I mean, we all can't be that lucky! But this example does at least indicate that causing the death of an unborn child is not considered murder.

I suppose that as a Jewish feminist, this should please me. I am heir to a tradition that is less rigid about abortion. It has repeatedly recognized the instances in which terminating a pregnancy, whether to protect the life of the mother or her sanity or for some other rabbinically sanctioned reason, is an acceptable solution. If a woman's life is in danger, it is considered necessary to abort the fetus in order to save the woman. At least according to this math, woman > fetus. Yay?

Yet I am not tremendously comforted. This still falls devastatingly short of choice, of granting women full autonomy and control over their bodies.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, women’s “ability to realize their full potential … is intimately connected to their ability to control their reproductive lives.” Abortion rights, Ginsburg went on, hinge “on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” [The New Yorker]

I keep cycling back to the passage from Exodus I cited and how irrelevant the woman is to the proceedings. The message I get from it--the Torah doesn't seem terribly concerned with a miscarriage, even a violently induced one, when a man causes it. I think it's only galling to folks when a woman chooses to end her own pregnancy. Women being the property of others, the victims of violence--that's old hat to humanity. But a woman deciding that she doesn't want to be a mother, not now and maybe not ever--that's much more radical than a man shoving her and causing her to miscarry. That a woman could get pregnant and not want to fulfill what many consider to be her destiny on this planet--bearing and raising children--is the true crime here.

I recognize that the cited passage is not actually an abortion and that the writers of the Bible had no concept of abortion as we moderns understand it. Back in those days, if you got pregnant, you stayed pregnant (for the most part). I just bring the Exodus passage as a way of neutralizing the "abortion is murder or even manslaughter" argument. And though more lenient than Christianity, Judaism still thinks about abortions as exceptions, to be done in the worst case scenario. As Jeffrey Toobin noted in The New Yorker, "Abortion becomes something that women can only earn by hardship, rather than something they can freely choose."

And the final say in these matters is always a man (at least in the case of Orthodoxy), who has no firsthand experience in pregnancy. But practical experience (or the lack thereof) hasn't really ever mattered. I mean, it's how we got the laws pertaining to niddah or "family purity." Men with no experience of menstruation have made themselves the experts on the whens, hows, and whys of women's monthly cycles just like they're members of Congress.

I know this a macabre thought but sometimes I wonder that if all abortions actually took place as the Bible described the above miscarriage--that a man, probably known to the woman, shoved her and caused her to lose the child--would so many be up in arms about it? After all, in both instances the results would be the same. No baby, no pregnancy. The difference here seems to hinge on choice and intent.

What are people really concerned with here--a dead fetus (or child if that's how you view the matter) or the disruption to the so-called "natural order"? I'm inclined to believe it's the latter that is truly prioritized especially when you consider how resources for real, live children who can survive outside of women's wombs are being withdrawn and/or slashed.


Shmendrick said...

I have a lot of thoughts about the issues in this article but they refuse to form into coherent sentences so for now I'll settle for saying this post is really well-written and has made me think differently about the issue. When I can get my thoughts together I'll post what I think about this but until then thank you for this.

Dvora Meyers said...

Looking forward to the feedback.