“I think ... you might be having twins!”
A moment of shock, and then my husband made a noise I’ve never heard a person make. He popped out of his chair and peered at the sonogram screen as the doctor pointed out one, then two embryos, his eyes wide and laughing through his face mask.
Where I lay on the exam table, I couldn’t see what was happening but felt the doors of my heart open wide to embrace a second tiny potential life.
And then, the doctor took another very different pause.
“Hang on. I’m going to see if one of my colleagues can take a look at this.”
The doctor quickly left the room, and my overwhelming joy was suddenly replaced by fear. We sat in silence as I stared at the ceiling and tried to guide my thoughts away from the information that waited on the other side of the door. Searching for something to grasp on to, I was surprised by the simple phrase that punctuates nearly every conversation with my grandmother.
“Please God,” I repeated to myself, “please God, please God.”
Mine is not a story about abortion ― nor exclusively about loss. Up to 25% of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage, an outcome confirmed for the smaller of our twins after a grueling week of tests and scans. Instead, it’s a story of moving through life carrying huge, sometimes contradictory, emotions: juggling the anticipation and nervousness ahead of our little one’s arrival while, at the same time, mourning the celebration that could have been.
The stories of people who can become pregnant are much more diverse than conventional wisdom would have you believe. Contraception, infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, delivery, postpartum care and parenting exist on a long, winding reproductive journey.
Yet legal debates often present a binary, disconnected from the lived realities of those making transformative decisions. Focusing on abstract distinctions like “undue burdens” and “gestational limits” obscures the personal messiness and structural barriers in reproductive care, pregnancy and parenting.
“As my pregnancy progressed, I faced the strange realization of reaching state gestational limits on abortion that are inconsistent with Jewish law.”
Roughly 1 in 4 women will have an abortion by the age of 45, making abortion among the most common medical procedures in the country. Recent polling by ABC News/The Washington Post found that 86% of women under 40 believe the decision to have an abortion should remain “between a woman and her doctor.”
Though these statistics are limited to women, the ability to become pregnant isn’t, and gendered assumptions about pregnancy are one of many barriers that can make finding a health care provider so daunting. For trans and non-binary people, people of color, low-income individuals, and those in rural areas, logistical hurdles and limited access to affirming and culturally competent providers can lead to life-threatening complications.
Our legal and medical systems fall short, but pregnant people remain moral decision-makers with unparalleled knowledge of their own needs and circumstances. Many find reassurance in religious traditions. Some, like me, surprise themselves with the role faith plays in moments when the world seems to stop.
I don’t typically take part in Judaism’s ritual aspects, something that may be surprising since I work for an organization called Interfaith Alliance. But my religious identity and commitment to reproductive autonomy are deeply intertwined.
Jewish law teaches that a fetus is part of the parent’s body until labor and childbirth. The duty to protect existing life, meaning the pregnant person, always comes first. Various Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but even required when continuing the pregnancy would endanger the pregnant person’s health, physical or psychological.
The immediacy of these teachings, and how they inform my relationship with pregnancy, took shape as my husband and I faced the prospect of becoming parents. The First Amendment guarantees that no single religion be enshrined in law or dictate public policy; despite efforts by the religious right to distort this basic principle, true religious freedom protects every person’s right to live out their faith-based or secular convictions in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
“Various Jewish sources explicitly state that abortion is not only permitted but even required when continuing the pregnancy would endanger the pregnant person’s health, physical or psychological.”
Still, as my pregnancy progressed, I faced the strange realization of reaching state gestational limits on abortion that are inconsistent with Jewish law. Abortion restrictions directly impede Jews’ ability to put our religious traditions into practice, violating the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from favoring one religion over others, as well as our 14th Amendment right to privacy.
From the echo of my grandmother’s well-worn phrase through the silence of that exam room, my respect grew for the complex circumstances that pregnant people face ― not in spite of my faith, but because of it. Reproductive freedom and religious freedom are inextricably linked.
Pregnant people hold within us our dreams for the future, our material concerns and obligations, and the love and care of those who support us. We seek the freedom to make decisions based on our moral and religious beliefs, the ability to have or not have children, to give birth to and raise our families with dignity, and to thrive in safe and healthy environments.
The legal right to “choose” is not enough when we deserve so much more.
Katy Joseph, J.D., is the director of policy and advocacy at Interfaith Alliance, a national advocacy group that champions an inclusive vision of religious freedom for people of all faiths and none. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband Cory and their rescue dog Rosie.