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Every Shabbat is ReproShabbat

02/03/2024 02:09:34 PM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Yitro, in which Moses’s father-in-law tells him he needs to set up a governmental structure to share the work load with, because trying to attend to all of the community’s needs alone will only cause harm to himself and to the community. Later in the Parasha, Moses climbs up Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments while the people are left in the capable hands of Aaron and the other magistrates and judges Moses has established to help divvy up responsibility in the Israelite camp.

            Again this year, the ReproShabbat date chosen by the National Council of Jewish Women coincides with a Family Shabbat, and with a visit from our friends at a local church who may have different religious values around Reproductive Freedom, so it doesn’t feel appropriate to try to speak on this issue with our expected demographic next week. While sometimes the special Shabbat themes various Jewish organizations decree have to do with dates on the calendar, ReproShabbat is always aligned with the Torah portion in which the Jewish laws around conception and terminating a pregnancy are based. Next week’s Parasha has a small narrative that is not actually about abortion or reproductive healthcare at all, but which makes clear that the Biblical authors did not view a fetus as a child, did not believe life begins at conception, and did not think the loss of a pregnancy constitutes a death. It is on this point then that Jewish laws around abortion are derived.

            This week’s Torah portion is sometimes considered the Birth of the Israelite Nation. There are a few different moments throughout Exodus where tradition tells us “THIS is the moment the Israelites went from being a band of 12 tribes to a single people,” so it’s useful to take these things with a grain of salt. Still, it’s worth noting that the Israelites are freshly freed. It’s been maybe a couple of weeks now (time is hard to track in the Torah) since their forced servitude in Egypt was ended, but then there was the rush of getting out of Egypt, camping at the shore of the Sea of Reeds trying to decide how to get across, needing a miracle to get them across once Pharoah’s army started coming after them, celebrating on the other shore, continuing to trek onward to the Mountain, and so on, so there hasn’t really been time to stop and reflect on their newfound freedom. They haven’t yet received any new information about what it means to be a free people, how they are to exist as an autonomous nation. This week’s Torah portion, with both its establishment of governing hierarchies and its establishment of new laws, really marks the beginning of a new national identity. In the beginning of the parasha, Moses and Yitro say several times that “God delivered” the Israelite people. Of course, in the Hebrew, this verb is related to “save”, which the Hebrew term for delivering a baby is related to the root for birth. Still, it doesn’t feel incidental to me that in English these words overlap. The rescue of the people of hardship, the birth of a newborn nation into existence, the delivery of the Israelites. Reproductive justice also means access to reproductive healthcare for people that want to be able to deliver healthy new life into the world, and legislation that seeks to end all access to abortion measures means also endangering wanted pregnancies. Despite the fact that Virginia does still allow access to misoprostol, a medication used to induce abortion, I learned this week that some doctors are afraid to prescribe it, even to help complete a spontaneous miscarriage – that is to induce a safe evacuation of non-viable fetal tissue from a womb that very much wanted that fetus to survive. In a case where a dilation and curettage procedure (known as a D&C), was considered a higher risk, where the patient was at a higher-than-normal likelihood for uterine perforation, the doctor’s policy was still to prefer this procedure over misoprostol.

        Imagine if God had said to Moses, “You know, I can see that this attempt to flee the Egyptians is failing, but it’s just really not my policy to mess with ocean tides, so I’d rather pull you through the water itself. Some of the Israelites may drown, but I’m just more comfortable with this. Probably you’ll still have enough people make it to the other side to still birth this new nation later.” The metaphor sounds almost silly, and obviously its not a perfect comparison – the people were still alive (so far) when stuck between the Sea and the advancing Egyptian army, even if their national identity had not yet been born. By contrast, the fetus needing evacuation did not have a heartbeat. The people would probably have faced large-scale death, whereas most spontaneous miscarriages are able to evacuate themselves eventually without sepsis in the uterus threatening the pregnant person’s life. Yet the point stands that one form of intervention may have a higher toll or risk than the other, and the idea that a “policy” should take precedence over the health or safety in the situation at hand is contrary to Jewish values. I’ve made clear before that Jewish law actually has a wider-than-you-might-think stance on allowances for abortion, and I personally have an even wider pro-choice stance as far as secular laws are concerned, but even if you believed that life began at conception and abortion was morally equivalent to murder, the laws and even stigma that limits access to medications like misoprostol inhibits safe delivery of health births as well. The polarization and politicization of all things “Reproductive Choice” harms myriad people in a myriad of ways, including but certainly not limited to people who are trying very hard to carry successful pregnancies to term and facing difficulties for reasons outside of any human control. Why would we make it more difficult for them by denying them agency over their healthcare decisions and denying them a lower risk means of dealing with a failed pregnancy? Let’s not.

         This ReproShabbat, this week or next or every week, let us commit to delivering in a new age, giving birth to a season of justice and compassion. Let us fight for the healthcare of all, the communication and compassion for healthcare professionals to be able to talk with their patients about options and pros and cons of various procedures, and for the agency of patients to make decisions that impact their own bodies without fear or shame or ignorance. May we soon see the deliverance of a unified peoplehood of safety and health and equality and justice for all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, July 23 2024 17 Tammuz 5784