In 1968, a 21-year-old Texas woman named Norma McCorvey became pregnant. Despite her young age, McCorvey had been pregnant twice before.
At age 16, McCorvey had been married to a man who brutally beat her. She left him to move in with her mother, who also had a history of violence, and gave birth to her first child. Within the child’s first year, her mother took the child from McCorvey and coerced her into signing papers putting the baby up for adoption. The following year, McCorvey became pregnant again and gave birth to a second child. This time she willingly put the child up for adoption after she was born.
During her third pregnancy, McCorvey resolved that she wanted an abortion. From her previous experience, she knew that she would not be able to get or keep a job while pregnant; and she desperately needed a job. Also she did not wish to repeat the emotional ordeal of her two previous unwanted pregnancies and adoptions.
Eventually, she was referred to attorneys who were mounting a legal challenge to Texas’ restrictive abortion laws. They filed a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the Attorney General for Dallas County, and named McCorvey as the plaintiff using the pseudonym “Jane Roe.”
As you know, the case eventually was brought to the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, declaring that the U.S. Constitution protects the right to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restrictions.
We learned this week that a majority of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court have taken an initial vote to overturn Roe v. Wade almost fifty years after the decision became the law of the land.
I assume that people do not come to Temple services in order to hear political commentary, or, at least, I assume that they probably shouldn’t. I have my political opinions, but it’s not my job to share them. On the other hand, the political issue of the moment, the leaked draft of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, is one that has an unmistakable impact on religion and morality.
For those who don’t like hearing their rabbi talk about controversial issues, I am sorry to disappoint you. Tonight, I regret that I must talk about what is probably the most controversial topic in America today.
For those who do want to hear their rabbi talk about politics, I am sorry to disappoint you, too. I am not going to touch on the political or legal aspect of the issue – which political parties are helped or hurt, which Justices are going to vote which way, what Congress could or should do, and so on. For any of those topics, I direct you to your favorite newspapers, radio networks, and cable news stations.
I am going to talk tonight about what this topic says about the role of religion in America, the moral destination our nation is heading toward, and how we should respond to the challenge as Jews and as human beings.
There is no question that the topic of abortion has become inextricably linked with religion in America. As much as some people try to camouflage their opinions in arguments about due process, state’s rights or so-called “Constitutional Originalism,” it is evident that those who support legal bans on abortion under some or all circumstances, are motivated by a particular religious view about when life begins and the authority of their religious view to be imposed on others. It is also plain to see that many who support abortion rights see religion as their enemy. It is for this reason that I have to speak on this issue. If I do not, it will only tend to confirm people’s false assumptions about religion, about Judaism, and about this holy congregation.
Let me make it clear: Reform Judaism holds that access to abortion is a Jewish value and that it is essential health care. This is a position that Reform Judaism’s delegates of lay congregational leaders have made over and over again for many decades. It is a position founded in the Torah, in the Talmud, and in the centuries of rabbinic commentary. Jewish law states unequivocally that the life and wellbeing of the living woman is prioritized over the developing fetus within her. Traditional Jewish law holds that there are circumstances in which abortion is favored or required, especially in cases where the woman’s life is imperiled.
Moreover, Reform Judaism holds that all people should be allowed to make the choices that are right for them – in consultation with medical professionals and their loved ones – about reproduction and about their bodies. The power of government to compel or force a choice – any choice – is a violation of this fundamental value.
Others, of course, are free to have different opinions about the morality of abortion, but there is more at stake in the present situation than just a challenging ethical issue. It appears that there are five Justices of the Supreme Court who favor restoring the power of government to impose one particular response to that challenge on all pregnant women.
In a constitutional democracy, should government be invested with the power to force itself into one of the most personal decisions a human being can make in her life? Is it the role of government to choose a position on a deeply contested religious issue like the beginning of human life and thereby force that position on people who believe differently?
This is not the first or only time that we Jews have been put into this position. Throughout our history, the majority populations in the places where we have lived have tried to force Jews to conform to their notions of God and morality. The resurgence we are seeing today of a Christian fundamentalism that insists that it has the right to impose its religious standards on our entire society should be deeply disturbing to Jews and to everyone, regardless of their position on the particular issue of abortion. There can be no question that success in overturning abortion rights on the state level will be followed by religiously motivated assaults on the federal level. There is no doubt that, once Roe v. Wade is dispatched, if it is dispatched, there will be an attempt to pass a national ban on abortions. There can be no doubt that it will result in attempts to overturn the right to contraception and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people, too.
What can we do? Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. Right now, the U.S. Constitution still protects the right to choose to have an abortion. Regardless of whether you personally approve of abortion or not, I ask you to do whatever you can to protect that right for others. If not for yourself, do it for your children and for generations of Americans to come who may soon lose the right to choose for themselves how and when to give birth. Write to your lawmakers. Show up for public displays of support for abortion rights.
More than fifty years ago, the story of a woman named Norma McCorvey opened up the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court. Seven of the Justices – all of them men – found that forcing a woman to give birth to unwanted children, in the words of their decision, “may force upon the woman a distressful life and future.” They saw that adoption was no solution to the problem. McCorvey herself had put up two of her children for adoption and knew that being forced to do it for a third time would do her harm.
Fifty years of living with Roe v. Wade has also taught us other important moral truths about abortion in America. We understand today that overturning Roe v. Wade will not end abortions. It will only force those who have the means and the ability to travel far to get them. Those who cannot will imperil their lives by attempting illegal abortions, as has happened throughout history when abortions have been restricted or banned.
We have also learned that denying access to abortion will disproportionately imperil the people who, right now, have less access to healthcare: poor people, people of color, immigrants and disabled people.
The right to abortion that was codified in Roe v. Wade almost fifty years ago did not fall from the sky for no reason. It happened because of the tireless efforts of people who understood that government should not have the power to reach into the most intimate decisions of our lives. The fight is not over. We will continue to keep true to our faith and to our values.