As American society exploded in division over the Supreme Court’s new ruling reversing the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that prevented states from outlawing abortion, the Labor and Welfare Committee of Israel’s Knesset approved reforms in Israel’s three-decade-old abortion law.
Until now, Israeli women were required to go to day-surgery units in hospitals or special surgical clinics to terminate a pregnancy. For the first time, Israeli women will now be allowed to have a medical abortion at their health maintenance organization clinic rather than in a hospital. The form will be digitized so that committee members will receive the full information in advance, and the woman applying will be able to submit the referral remotely and not have to go to the meeting in person.
The traditional Jewish view of abortion does not fit conveniently into either “pro-life” of “pro-choice” camps in the abortion debate. Judaism neither bans abortion completely, nor does it sanction indiscriminate abortion “on demand.”
As a general rule, abortion in Judaism is permitted only if there is a direct threat to the life of the mother by carrying the fetus to term or through the act of childbirth. In such a circumstance, the fetus is technically considered a “pursuer” who is threatening the mother’s life, and so the fetus may be terminated in “self-defense.” . Despite the classification of the fetus as a pursuer, once the baby’s head or most of its body has been delivered, the baby’s life is considered equal to the mother’s, and we may not choose one life over another, because it is considered as though they are both pursuing each other.
Organizations and women who protested against the existing approval procedures maintained that married women aged 18 to 40 were forced to lie and claim the fetus was produced in an adulterous relationship or that they were mentally ill. Such affirmations could cause them legal problems in the event of a divorce or other action.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who pushed for the reforms along with Knesset Members MKs Michal Rosin and Gabi Lasky, said that “for more than 30 years, the Health Ministry has followed an archaic procedure that instructs members of abortion committees to do everything in their power to reduce ‘unnecessary abortions.’ The circular called on committee members to try and persuade women who turn to the committee to reconsider. It’s over. We canceled this ridiculous circular. When I saw the procedures of the abortion committee it seemed like a bad joke.”
Before 2014, approval for an abortion in Israel by a termination committee was given under limited circumstances, such as if the woman was unmarried, age considerations (if the woman was under the age of 18 – the legal marriage age in Israel – or over the age of 40); the pregnancy was conceived under illegal circumstances (rape, statutory rape, etc.); or an incestuous relationship; serious birth defects; or significant risk to the physical or mental health or the life of the mother.
The new regulations approved will take effect in about three months, during which the ministry will update the work procedures of the abortion committees and meet the established principles.
The abortion rate in Israel has steadily declined since 1988 as abortions were most common among the large number of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who came to Israel in the late 1980s and early 1990s after having little access to contraception products.
Compared to the rest of the world, abortion rates in Israel are moderate. According to government data, the rates in 2016 dropped steadily to nine per 1,000 women of childbearing age despite the significant increase in the population – lower than England (16.2) and the US (13.2). Fully 99% of abortions are carried out in the first trimester. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, more than 16,000 requests were made to committees in 2020, with the vast majority of them approved by the panels.