I read a fascinating article this past year that explained that Steve Jobs always wore his signature sleek turtleneck, faded jeans, and white sneakers, because it would keep him from having to make even the small decision of what to wear each day, and allow him to focus his energy on his projects at Apple and Pixar. Making choices is one of the most difficult things we do in life, and the bigger the decision the harder it is. Our own Talmud, features collections of thousands of transcripts of the deliberations of great minds engaging in big decisions. Conversations on topics that rarely came to a definite conclusion and that often included stories to further illustrate the complexities and the feelings involved with those debates. Through these texts we see a spark of the passion these teachers had for deep questions and their reverence for each minority opinion. As Reform Jews we understand this to mean that we are called to make our own decisions about how to practice as Jews, placing the most intimate and impactful parts of our lives in our own hands, not the hands of a distant community leader.
Just this past week I listened to a recent episode of Radiolab. I love this program, it often presents things that I chew on for days and weeks well after they finish reading the credits. Among the many things in the episode 23 Weeks 6 Days, that really stayed with me were the words of a young mother talking to her partner. She said that we rarely make important decisions based on reason. This rang so true to me. The really big decisions are made by a deeper part of us, our hearts, our souls. All the more so for her as she was talking about whether or not to follow through with the birth of their baby, who, due to complications, had a very low likelihood of surviving after birth. I can't imagine what making that decision would have been like. Holding in one hand the very real chance of using up a tremendous amount of resources, not the least of which is their own hope, on a child that is likely to never breathe her first breath of air, and on the other hand the vision of their own child passing through the milestones of life, all the sweet potential moments together hanging in the balance of one word: yes or no.
This podcast came riding on the heels of the passing of HB 1337 in the Indiana House of Representatives. One of the most restrictive bills in the country concerning abortion. I could feel the pain in my bones as I read about the bill on a national news feed on my phone. A break in the broadcast cycle about the presidential race so that the entire nation could view with the same shock as my own that our state would so violently strip away women's rights. This bill is getting national attention because of its draconian and anachronistic approach to human rights. A bill that tells every woman in Indiana what she can and can't do with her body, signed into law by a group of 74 people, 64 of whom are men. This is a bill that embodies what we, a people who were once slaves in Egypt, should know instinctively: that it is a violation of our deepest values to allow one person to control the body of another, men controlling women's bodies.
As Reform Jews, who champion the right of every person to make their own decisions about their spiritual life, and their body, how do we reconcile this state law?
This bill imposes a number of targeted bureaucratic barriers against a woman's right to have an abortion. It uses rhetoric that purports to protect gender and disability in order to discriminate against women, and the disabled community. HB 1337 makes it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion if they suspect that the person is terminating the fetus because of its sex or because of a disability. I am deeply challenged by the vagueness of this bill's language. How exactly does a doctor determine what a woman's motives are for having an abortion? In what way can you prove that she made her decision based on those criteria? A daunting task, one that forces doctors and patients to lie to one another, and leaves doctors making their decision based on what they feel is the woman's motives.
To be clear, Jewish law does not prohibit abortions. In the eyes of Judaism there is no life involved until the moment the child is born, but more importantly the physical and emotional safety of the mother is paramount and always takes precedence in our tradition (see Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). There are real physical challenges posed by the birth of a child, but there can also be significant problems posed by the responsibility to take care of another life when you yourself have trouble finding your next meal. A challenge all too clear to the black community in Indiana, and so every single black member of the Indiana House of Representatives voted against this bill, making up 8 of the 23 opposed.
This is a real problem, not a challenge that we can take lightly. An abortion is a tremendous decision in anyone's life. One that is fraught with emotion and I cannot imagine it is ever made carelessly. This is one of those important decisions that won't be made with reason, it's something that every person has to make for themselves based on how they feel, but it is a decision that should be made by the mother, based on her own feelings, not based on the feelings of the doctor, or the courts, or 74 people that she will never meet, sitting in a room she will never enter, discussing one of the most important decisions she will make in her life.