On Dec. 1, when the Supreme Court heard arguments about a Mississippi law that bans nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Naomi Silber was surprised.
Mississippi’s law conflicts with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that set the precedent for legal abortion. The case also stops states from banning the operation before 24 weeks of pregnancy. With six conservative justices sitting on today’s Supreme Court forming a broadly anti-abortion majority, abortion activists like Silber expected the hearing to be hostile toward Roe.
But the arguments were “worse than I expected,” said Silber, the development director for Pro-Choice Minnesota, which lobbies for reproductive rights through legislation. “The questions the judges were asking felt so obviously like they were looking for an excuse” to overturn Roe.
In the summer of 2022, the court is expected to take that excuse; at best, a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization will undermine Roe’s 24-week abortion guarantee, and at worst, the federal right to abortion will be gutted altogether.
Jews have long played a role in abortion advocacy, and for activists, Dobbs represents an arc of history that is bending toward injustice, rather than justice. Inspired by Judaism, they are gearing up for the long fight to reverse the expected ruling and preparing for its effects on Minnesota, the Upper Midwest, and the rest of the country.
“I was a baby when Roe v. Wade was decided,” said Beth Gendler, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. “We’re going backwards…and it’s tough to watch protections that we have always assumed were in place, wither away.”
Roe v. Wade
Over the past few years, Felicia Kornbluh, a historian at the University of Vermont, has interviewed Jewish feminists who advocated for legal abortion in the 1960s and 70s. Seeing Roe v. Wade on the verge of being overturned is deeply demoralizing for yesteryear’s activists.
“It’s hard for them to see that what they thought was going to be a beginning, in terms of the momentum that ultimately created Roe versus Wade…became kind of an endpoint,” Kornbluh said. “Roe [is now] the high watermark, whereas for many of them Roe wasn’t even good enough.”
Abortion was a matter of freedom and bodily autonomy for the activists, something Kornbluh knows personally from the work her mother, a lawyer in New York, did on abortion access. Giving birth and raising a child in the wrong circumstances could be deeply damaging to a woman’s quality of life, particularly given workplace sexism.
“My mother was deeply offended at the idea that a woman would be expected to have a child because she was going to need to get out there and earn a living. And if she didn’t, she was going to be vulnerable,” Kornbluh said.
While Roe is often characterized as an all-out victory for abortion activists, the reality of the Supreme Court decision is more complicated. States were forbidden from banning abortions before 24 weeks of pregnancy — considered the time of fetal viability, or when a fetus can survive outside of the womb — but after that point the court allowed states to enact restrictions and bans.
For abortion activists, the ultimate goal before and after Roe was to remove any mention of the procedure from the law. “Appendicitis isn’t in the law book; tonsillectomy, it’s not in the law book,” Kornbluh said. “So why should abortion be regulated in that way?”
Jewish women were overrepresented in the movement for reproductive rights across its different factions, from distinctly Jewish work with the National Council of Jewish Women; to leaders like Betty Friedan in the National Organization for Women; to radical feminists and socialist feminists.
Judaism inspired them in varying ways, and there’s no consistent story to tell about why Jews were so involved.
Kornbluh referenced a book where Jewish radical feminists were interviewed about their work. “Half of them said, ‘oh, it’s because I’m Jewish that I became a radical,” she said. The other half said their activism was “‘in rebellion against my Jewish background. It was because Judaism was so patriarchal.’”
Kornbluh also points to an expectation of Jewish women in the workplace that contrasted with the stereotype of the 1950s American nuclear family, where a woman would stay home to take care of kids while her husband held down a job.
“My great-grandfather was a rabbi in the old country…He was probably in the study house all day. My great-grandmother was the one who was hustling. And so I think that did make a difference,” she said.
Activism In Minnesota
Decades after Roe v. Wade, many Jewish activists grew up with abortion as a given. “My mom met all of her best friends at her pro-choice book club she was in in her 20s,” said Silber.
There’s also a broader understanding now of who abortion advocacy is for. “There are Jewish activists of all genders who are working on this,” Silber said. “This is not a woman’s issue exclusively…people of all genders have gotten abortions.”
Like the previous generation of activists, different aspects of Judaism drive support for abortion access. In one way, anything Jews do is seen as, culturally, a Jewish act. In another, abortion is about the pursuit of Tikkun Olam (healing the world) through social justice. There’s also a basis for legal abortion in Jewish law, which does not believe that life begins at conception and places the life of a pregnant woman as more important than an unborn child.
Talking in Jewish terms about abortion, however, takes some learning — and unlearning.
“I grew up in Kansas, the heart of the Bible Belt,” said Beth Gendler, executive director of NCJW Minnesota. “Until quite recently, I hadn’t realized how much the Christian-dominant way of thinking and talking about abortion and choice and life had really impacted the way that I thought about abortion…as I’ve studied more of the text around it, I’ve become more comfortable really leaning on Judaism as a way of explaining why it is so important.”
After the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion, some things will stay the same in Minnesota: abortion, guaranteed in the state’s constitution, will still be a given. But the broader situation in the Upper Midwest will get worse.
Every state surrounding Minnesota has abortion restrictions already, and each is expected to further restrict or ban abortion after the summer ruling, leaving Minnesota even more of an island of abortion access.
If Roe is overturned, Minnesota could see up to a 371% increase in the number of people who come from out of state to get an abortion at one of eight abortion clinics. “We’ve been serving half of our requests from out of state right now,” said Leah Soule, development manager for Our Justice, an abortion fund that helps patients access the procedure. “And so that’s just going to increase vastly.”
But Minnesota exceptionalism only goes so far. Though abortion is legal, there are also laws designed to intimidate patients and make it harder to get an abortion. They run the gamut from mandating a misleading script about the procedure for doctors to read to patients, to making it illegal for capable medical professionals to provide an abortion.
A coalition of abortion advocates is suing Minnesota to remove all abortion restrictions, with the judge expected to reach a decision on their constitutionality in the next few months. More so than a Supreme Court decision, Doe v. Minnesota will define the future of abortion access in the state.
“We could have all of the rulings for this case before the Supreme Court case comes out,” Soule said. Our Justice is one of the organizations suing against the restrictions. “But we also could go to trial…in the summer [depending] on what the judge chooses to do.”
Soule is confident that the restrictions will be partially or entirely ruled unconstitutional. But like the ruling on Mississippi’s abortion law, all there is to do is wait and see.
“Regardless of what happens…people will continue to need abortions, and people like me will continue to support them in getting those,” she said.
Together with UnRestrict Minnesota, a coalition of Minnesotan of reproductive justice organizations that includes Our Justice and Pro-Choice Minnesota, NCJW is working on an action plan for fighting the expected Supreme Court ruling on abortion.
Gendler says the focus is on supporting the state’s abortion infrastructure but doesn’t have more detail to offer at the moment.
She also sees abortion as a central issue in the 2022 midterm elections. It’s an opportunity to get more abortion supporters in the state legislature, and to elevate the issue for residents still influenced by a Christian culture that stigmatizes abortion. Educating about abortion’s legality and restrictions in Minnesota has been somewhat of a struggle.
“Our lawmakers, and frankly, our advocates, have been a little bit squeamish about talking about abortion,” Gendler said. “Research shows that most Minnesotans do support access to abortion. And I think that forcing that conversation in our state is going to be really important as the entire legislature is up for election or reelection next fall.”
If people want to get involved with abortion access in the state, activists say it’s best to put your money where your mouth is.
“People don’t often want to hear that the best thing they can do is donate, because they want to be a part of the action themselves,” Silber said. “Donating so Pro-Choice Minnesota‘s lobbyist can go advocate for better bills is really important, and [so is] donating to Our Justice so that people can actually afford the abortions that they need to get.”
For Kornbluh, there are lessons that today’s abortion access movement needs to learn from older activists. For one, the diverse coalition of groups whose work resulted in Roe v. Wade was able to stay focused on the larger goal despite their differences.
But today “there’s a lot of standing on our particular identities and making the best the enemy of the good,” Kornbluh said. “There’s a place for being idealistic…[but] at a certain point, it’s more important to focus on the goal than to focus on the purity of everybody who’s been in the movement.”
She also emphasized that breaking the law is an essential tool in fighting any ruling that undermines abortion access. Doctors, many of them Jewish, illegally provided abortions for women across the country before Roe was legalized, and networks of interfaith clergy helped abortion patients travel to get the operation.
“They broke the law. And that changed the law,” Kornbluh said. “I analyze law for a living…I’m tired of being smart about it. I’m tired of having to write analyses and tired of predicting the bad things that are going to happen.
“So I’m over that. I’m looking for opportunities for action.”