August 7, 2015 – 23 Av 5775
No doubt you’ve heard in the past few weeks of the undercover videos with Planned Parenthood staff and employees that allegedly present a case for Planned Parenthood’s procurement and sale of fetal tissue from abortions. While I have chosen not to watch the videos myself, I have read a lot about them. I believe, as Planned Parenthood has indicated, that the videos are edited in a way to present the message that those who secretly recorded these videos want to share, a message that simply isn’t true. Of all of the work that Planned Parenthood does, abortions only account for 3% of their revenue. 96% of their revenue, which includes 100% of the funding Planned Parenthood receives from the government, covers the testing and treatment of sexually transmitted infections or STDs, contraception, cancer screening and prevention, and other women’s health services. If our government were to defund Planned Parenthood, it would have a devastating effect on women’s healthcare, especially women in underprivileged and rural communities.
I’ve shared from this bimah before Judaism’s stance on abortion, which I do not intend to be the focus of what I want to share with you this evening, but let me refresh your memory. In Parashat Mishpatim, in Exodus, in the passage we most remember for its phrase about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life, we actually encounter the first Jewish source text on abortion. This system of consequence is enumerated because of a fight between two men in which one of the men causes the other man’s pregnant wife to miscarry. The text indicates that if the woman’s life were lost, then the consequence would be a life for a life, that is, capital punishment for his act of killing the other man’s wife. If, however, her life is not harmed, but her fetus is, then there is only monetary compensation to her husband, who has lost some of his property, that is, the fetus that was in his wife’s womb. This text becomes the basis for Jewish law on abortion, which teaches that a fetus is not a life and that the loss of a fetus does not require capital punishment in Jewish law. The law builds from this moment and indicates that if the woman’s life is in danger, then the pregnancy must be terminated in order to save her life, even in instances that we now would call as late-term abortion.
In my work of actively supporting Planned Parenthood over the past decade, I have asserted that any restriction on abortion in American law actually prevents us as Jews from fulfilling the obligation of our religious tradition. There are times when Jewish law requires abortion, even as it despises the fact that it is necessary and mourns the loss of potential life, and any restriction on access to abortion is an abrogation of our ability to observe our tradition. But that’s not even the issue with the potential defunding of Planned Parenthood by Congress today. No dollars from our Federal government support Planned Parenthood’s access to abortion. In fact, the use of Federal funds for abortion has been prohibited since 1976.
While immediate efforts in Congress to defund Planned Parenthood may have stalled and while our current president is likely to veto any such maneuver, it remains our obligation to understand how important Planned Parenthood’s funding from the government is to the well-being of women’s healthcare in this country. This week’s parashah contains one of the many references in the Torah to our moral obligations to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger, who are, as I’ve said before, an example to us of society’s most vulnerable citizens. An attempt to defund an organization that provides women with varying economic means access to STI and STD testing and treatment, contraception, and cancer screening and prevention, is a direct attack on our society’s most vulnerable members. When members of Congress simultaneously restrict access to contraception and to vaccines, such as the HPV vaccine, that prevent cervical cancer, while also restricting access to abortion, they are creating a lose-lose situation for American women, especially those who do not have the luxury of seeing a primary care physician in a medical facility other than Planned Parenthood. In many parts of rural America, Planned Parenthood is the only access to women’s healthcare available for hundreds of miles.
I would encourage you to stand with Planned Parenthood by speaking in their defense or by making a donation so that you can be part of what ensures that women have access to necessary medical treatment. I would also encourage you, even if the issue is moot at the moment, to voice your concerns and the position of our tradition to your elected officials, to learn where they stand on this issue and to either thank them or encourage them to make a shift in their position because of why women’s healthcare matters to you. Some women’s lives depend upon it. Shabbat Shalom.