One thing I always knew growing up in my Jewish family was that my grandmother fought to codify Roe v. Wade in Connecticut. It was one of those facts that functions as family lore; a story that felt central to who we were as a family unit. We were Americans. We were Jews. And we were people who cared about justice of all varieties — especially reproductive justice.
We were Americans. We were Jews. And we were people who cared about justice of all varieties — especially reproductive justice.
On Friday afternoon, in the hours after the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health and 5-4 to overturn Roe v. Wade, the seminal 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationally, I called my grandmother, now 93, for a quick fact check.
“Correct,” she replied, when I asked her if she had indeed fought alongside other women to ensure that in 1990, the right to abortion care was codified into Connecticut state statute. She expressed pride in the fact that Connecticut would remain a state where birthing people could obtain abortion care, even as more than a dozen others move to ban the procedure outright.
While I never saw my grandmother’s work with Connecticut for Choice in the ‘80s and ‘90s as an explicitly Jewish mission — some of her closest collaborators were Catholic — the two always seemed at least tangentially connected in my brain. Reproductive justice and Judaism seemed to go hand in hand.
This is precisely the argument that a South Florida synagogue, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, is making in court. This month, the Palm Beach County synagogue filed a lawsuit challenging Florida’s 15-week abortion ban on the grounds that it violates the right to privacy and freedom of religion, both of which are codified in the state’s constitution. Jewish law, the suit states, affirms that “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”
Rabbi Samantha Frank, a rabbinic fellow at Temple Micah in Washington, D.C., confirmed to me that in Judaism, reproductive justice goes back to the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), specifically the book of Exodus, in which a differentiation is made between the life of a fetus and the life of a pregnant person. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg recently summarized the story that this argument comes from in an essay for The Atlantic:
“Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm doer is obligated to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.”
When most Americans think about religion and abortion, they probably think about the vocal Christian right: Protesters outside abortion clinics with crosses, anti-abortion signs with slogans like “We Are Praying for the End of Abortion,” young white women in Uggs marching with their Bible study groups, evangelical preachers delivering the closing prayers at the March for Life, whose president, not incidentally, used to work for the Catholic Church.
This public connection is no accident. Nationalist, conservative Christians have used abortion as a political rallying cry for years. And although clergy members have always been involved politically, and on all parts of the political spectrum, in the United States, reactionary Christian theology is currently shaping collective American society most profoundly.
As journalist Katherine Stewart wrote in her 2020 book, “The Power Worshippers,” extreme right-wing nationalists “settled on abortion as its litmus test sometime after [Roe v. Wade] for reasons that had more to do with politics than embryos. It then set about changing the religion of many people in the country in order to serve its new political ambitions.”
And it worked. Roe is dead. Americans of all genders and races will suffer, swiftly and greatly. And the groundwork, stated explicitly in Justice Clarence Thomas’ solo concurring opinion, has been laid to come after gay marriage, queer sex, contraception, pornography and interracial marriage next.
The foot soldiers of the modern anti-abortion movement remain overwhelmingly Christian. According to Pew Research, 33 percent of American evangelicals believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 82 percent of Buddhists and 83 percent of Jews.
But what would an alternative religious reading of abortion rights look like? Why should Americans simply accept that the only religious “freedom” worthy of respect and consideration is of the right-wing Christian variety?
“Banning abortion is a violation of our religious liberty and ability to fulfill even our religious obligations, the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment,” Rabbi Ruttenberg told me in an email. “The Talmud [the text that serves as the primary source of Jewish law] considers the fetus ‘mere water’ for the first 40 days after conception and part of the pregnant person's body after that – as potential life until birth, not as actual life at conception. Enshrining one specific theology as law is a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
My generation will be yet another left to fight for our bodily autonomy, our complete personhood, and, yes, our religious freedom.
If the Supreme Court is open to the argument that taxpayers must fund religious schools in Maine on the basis of religious freedom, it follows that they should be ready to listen to cases that argue that abortion bans prevent Jewish Americans from exercising their religious freedoms. Whether or not Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor’s lawsuit holds up, there will be others in its wake.
When I spoke to my Jewish grandmother today from the back seat of an Uber, zipping around New York City, preparing to write this piece before heading out to witness another round of protests, one thing she said stuck with me. After expressing pride in her past work for abortion rights, she paused and sighed.
“I’m just so tired of having to fight my whole life.”
It occurred to me that my generation will be yet another left to fight for our bodily autonomy, our complete personhood, and, yes, our religious freedom. Even if that freedom looks a lot different from the faith espoused by an extremist branch of Christianity.