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BY Brian Caulfield
NEW YORK—Speaking about partial-birth abortion, Vicki Stuart, a star of the daytime TV drama Days Of Our Lives, uses the strongest words she can muster.
“This is something I would expect from Dr. Mengele in the Nazi death camps,” she said in a measured, theatrical tone. “Definitely, this is infanticide. It's impossible to stand by and let it happen. There is no reason I can think of for a doctor to do such a thing — except sadism.”
Stuart is one of 30 professional Jewish women, many of them in the entertainment and arts fields, who have signed a petition condemning partial-birth abortion. It will be sent to the nine Jewish members of Congress who last year voted to uphold President Bill Clinton's veto of a bill banning the procedure.
Many of the women, like Stuart, support legal abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, but they understand this procedure — in which the baby is partially delivered and then killed with scissors and a suction machine — to be against Jewish law and all standards of a humane society.
“We're put on this earth to bury our parents, not our children,” Stuart said in an interview with the Register. “To choose to use such a method to kill your child must be the most horrendous of crimes.”
Other Jewish women who have signed the petition are syndicated columnist Mona Charen, author Midge Decter, actress Lainie Kazan, impressionist Marilyn Michaels, who starred in the television comedy Copy Cats, and Suzanne Schachter, one of the nation's leading children's talent agents.
The initiative is supported by the Institute for Religious Values, an interfaith organization in Bethesda, Md., which previously gathered the signatures of 80 rabbis for a similar petition against the procedure (see “Rabbis Join Outcry Against Partial-Birth Abortion,” March 29-April 4). The rabbis, from Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed traditions, stated that Jewish law allows abortion in some instances to save the life of the mother, but killing a baby in the process of being born is murder. They also cited the American Medical Association's judgment that the procedure is never medically helpful.
Sandi Merle, a writer and artist representative, drafted the more recent petition and has called upon her contacts in the arts to gather signatures. Her effort was inspired by John Cardinal O'Connor, who appointed her to the New York archdiocese's Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, which finds ways for leaders in the two religions to work together for the common good.
“Everything I have done in this area is prompted by Cardinal O'Connor, God bless him,” said Merle. “Little by little, I allowed myself to be educated, and he treated me like a gentle teacher would a promising student, to turn me to the truth that was always there. I will thank him till my dying breath.”
Merle first met the cardinal more than 10 years ago, when she heard him say that the rose on his lapel was a symbol of his devotion to saving unborn babies from abortion. She was co-founder with Stuart of an organization for women who suffer miscarriage, and for the first time she saw abortion in terms of losing a child by choice.
“Here I was, meeting him for the first time, and this wonderful man, the cardinal, had already touched my heart,” she told the Register.
Merle says her morning prayers in Hebrew and ends with the words, “Now I begin,” quoting St. Francis de Sales, to whom she has a great devotion.
A heart attack and near-death experience two years ago left her with the conviction that her life was spared so she could perform some good work in the world. After consulting with the cardinal, she formed an organization called STOP (Standing Together Opposing Partial-Birth Abortion).
Polls and the two bills passed by both houses of Congress show that a majority of the American people are against the procedure. What is lacking, she said, is the voice of people in the arts and entertainment fields, who heavily influence public opinion. Most of the women in these fields have not heard of the procedure, or if they have, they do not understand how it is performed, she said.
“At one time, I thought that abortion was a woman's choice though I was never vociferously ‘pro-choice,’” said Merle. “I've made a 180-degree turn on this issue. Now I see that we're talking about babies — innocent children. Conventional wisdom says that since I'm Jewish and a woman and in the arts that these are three reasons why I should be ‘pro-choice.’ But I see them as three reasons to be pro-life. As a Jew, I am called to defend the poor and helpless. As a woman who is a mother, I know what it's like to be on the responsible end of the umbilical cord. As someone in the arts, I have to provoke thought in others.”
She is against all abortions but is focusing on the late-term procedure because she knows that most people in the arts would not support a complete abortion ban.
The petition that will go to Jewish members of Congress states: “As Jewish women and leaders in our communities, we must look to traditional Jewish teaching and our common understanding on moral behavior before formulating an opinion on this sensitive issue. As women, we are responsible for bringing life into the world and for nurturing that life. Partial-birth abortion has been called ‘infanticide’ by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. There is no place in a humane society for this practice, which requires delivery of the entire baby with the exception of the head before it is brutally destroyed.”
Obvious targets of the campaign are the two female Jewish senators from California, Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, though Merle said that she does not expect them to convert any time soon. A more likely candidate to switch sides is Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), who is an Orthodox Jew.
The only Jewish member of Congress who voted to override the president's veto is Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.).
Chris Gersten, president of the Institute for Religious Values, is raising money to place advertisements with the petition in Jewish newspapers in the districts of Jewish legislators as he did with the petition signed by rabbis.
“Our plan is to engage the Jewish community in an ongoing dialogue through Jewish peer groups,” said Gersten. “The Jewish community can no longer be thought of as exclusively on the ‘pro-choice’ side of the debate. We hope that this will lead to a debate on the whole abortion issue.”
Stuart has suffered a miscarriage and lost another child to crib death. She also has two grown sons.
“I know the pain of losing a child,” she said. “How can a mother undergo partial-birth abortion, knowing that this is a developed baby, after she's felt movement? It's a living thing inside her.”
Her niece in Jerusalem recently delivered a (premature) baby during the seventh month of pregnancy, she said.
“They saved that child's life,” said Stuart. “To do the opposite and kill the child is mind boggling. If this is allowed what's next?”
Brian Caulfield writes from New York.