JERUSALEM — Since Jan. 1, the "health basket" of medications and services covered by Israel’s universal health-care system has included free abortions to all women aged 20 to 33, regardless of the circumstances.
Until now, government-funded abortions have been reserved for women under 19 or over 40 and in cases where the unborn child has a severe defect, the mother’s life is endangered or the pregnancy is a result of sexual abuse. In other cases — for example, if a woman believes the pregnancy will cause her harm, physically or emotionally — she has had to pay for the procedure herself.
Up to 6,300 women who could not otherwise afford an abortion will be able to do so now, due to the $4.6 million earmarked by the Health Ministry committee that determines what will and won’t be covered by the country’s government-subsidized health funds, according to Dr. Jonathan Halevy, director of the committee.
The health funds resemble HMOs in their operation.
Halevy added that no one knows how many of these women would have paid for the abortions themselves, were the funding unavailable.
Abortion-rights supporters say the expanded coverage will enable all Israeli women to realize their rights under Israel’s abortion legislation. Opponents wonder how a nation that prides itself on being the locus of Christianity, Judaism and Islam suddenly decided to fund thousands more abortions when the rate of abortions here has been declining steadily for a quarter century.
Sandy Shoshani, national director of Be’ad Chaim, a Messianic Jewish organization that provides help to women of all religions contemplating abortion, said the government was able to earmark funding because Israel’s coalition government "is currently mostly composed of secular parties." Without the usual ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the government, she said, "this was a window for them to push this legislation through."
According to the Ministry of Health’s latest (2012) statistics, the number of abortions fell 21% from 1990 to 2012, from 150 for every 1,000 live births to 117.
In 2013, almost 20,000 Israeli women received permission to abort from "hospital termination committees," according to Efrat, an organization that helps pregnant Jewish women choose to give birth, rather than abort their babies, by assisting them financially.
Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, emphasized that Israel, despite having more holy sites, churches, synagogues and mosques than perhaps any other country, is governed almost entirely by civil law.
"The only area in which the law grants Jewish law a monopoly is over issues related to marriage and divorce" and other things related to Jewish practice, Halbertal said. Israeli law also empowers Christians, Muslims, Druze and other minorities to conduct their own marriages and other religious ceremonies. There is no civil marriage in Israel.
Israel, Halbertal said, is a democracy first, "and a majority of the general public has a strong pro-choice tendency."
Nonetheless, Israel’s abortion regulations are influenced by religious law, said Halbertal. But Jewish law — the guiding religious force in Israel, which was created as a haven for Jews three years after the end of the Holocaust — "is more lenient than other religious traditions, which is why the religious parties are hesitant to turn it into a struggle with secular lawmakers," he said.
In Israel, Halbertal explained, "every person decides for his or herself how to act according to their own values. While it doesn’t force any woman to get an abortion, it doesn’t prevent her from having one either."
Issues of concern to Catholics, such as embryonic stem-cell research, "aren’t prohibited by Jewish law because they could potentially save a life," Halbertal noted. "Judaism does not hold that conception is the beginning of life."
Some Israeli rabbis have come out against the government’s new abortion-funding guidelines. Rabbi David Stav, the head of Tzohar, a modern-Orthodox rabbinical organization, told the Arutz Sheva media outlet that it is "immoral" for the state to fund abortions that result from a mother’s "personal decisions" rather than serious medical problems or sexual abuse.
"The state [will be] allocating resources for personal decisions," something that is "forbidden by Jewish law," Stav said.
The Latin Patriarchate in Jerusalem, which represents the Catholic Church in the Holy Land, has been less openly vocal on the issue, perhaps because its views on abortion are well known and also due to the delicate relations it has with Israeli authorities.
Asked to comment on the government funding of abortions, Archbishop William Shomali, the auxiliary bishop and patriarchal vicar for Palestine, told the Register, "According to the Bible, any killing is against God. Abortion is killing. Life starts from the first moment of conception, and, for us, abortion is killing. I can’t say anything more."
Feminist groups have no problem if a woman who wants to keep her baby receives assistance, but they insist that the government must pay for all abortions on an equal basis.
Ronit Piso, coordinator of the Women and Medical Technologies project run by the Isha L’Isha Feminist Center in Haifa, said that, despite Israel’s global designation as the Holy Land, "for us, this is the place where we live and where everyone can express their beliefs. We believe every woman and man has the right to their bodies and preferences and that funding in our society should express these values."
Ruth Tidhar, who heads the assistance department of Efrat, the pregnancy-support group, said her organization doesn’t try to persuade women with arguments related to religion.
"We’re a Jewish organization, but not a religious one," Tidhar explained. For the most part, she said, pregnant women — religious, secular and in between — are considering an abortion "for financial or emotional reasons," and bringing up religious issues doesn’t dissuade them from terminating.
Although the pregnancy-support organization, which was founded by a Holocaust survivor dedicated to repopulating the Jewish people after 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, is not overtly religious, "we are doing holy work," Tidhar said. "Efrat has saved over 56,000 babies."
She believes the financial assistance Efrat provides, along with the organization’s outreach and education campaign throughout Israel, is the main reason the number of abortions has decreased.
In contrast, Shoshani, national director of Be’ad Chaim, said her Jerusalem-based organization is founded on religious principles.
"We’re Bible-based. We believe that every person is created in the image of God," she said.
The organization, which is funded mainly by Christians and Messianic Jews from outside Israel, helps Christian and Muslim Arab women, North-African refugees and non-Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, among others.
Be’ad Chaim provides a crib, stroller, baby bath and a 300 shekel ($85) monthly gift certificate for baby items. Shoshani said this has helped to save more than 860 babies.
As she said, "We feel every baby has a right to live."
Michele Chabin is the Register’s
Middle East correspondent.
She writes from Jerusalem.