Rabbis join forces on abortion issue

WASHINGTON — In a departure from the prevailing Jewish stance on what is known as partial-birth abortion, a group of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox rabbis has joined the movement to eliminate the controversial procedure.

While Catholics and Christian fundamentalists have traditionally led the battle against abortion in all forms, some 70 rabbis from around the country are urging lawmakers to override President Clinton's veto of legislation banning the late-term procedure to end pregnancy.

Congress passed a ban on partial-birth abortion procedures last year, but Clinton vetoed it because he believed it did not go far enough in protecting a woman's health. The bill, which would make it illegal for doctors to perform the procedure, only makes an exception to protect a woman's life.

The House of Representatives passed the legislation by the necessary two-thirds margin needed to override the president's veto, but the Senate came up three votes short, passing it 64-43.

Now the Senate is seeking another vote to override the veto.

If the bill becomes law, it would mark the first time that a specific abortion procedure was made illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1973, in Roe vs. Wade, that women have a legal right to abort.

Supporters of the partial-birth abortion ban, however, were dealt a setback this week when the Supreme Court left intact a ruling that struck down as unconstitutional an Ohio state law banning the procedure. Jewish abortion rights advocates said they hoped the ruling would discourage Congress from attempting to enact the federal ban.

The rabbis' effort marks the first organized campaign in the Jewish community to advocate for legislation designed to reduce abortion, said Chris Gersten, president of the Institute for Religious Values, a one-man operation that organized the campaign.

"This statement is designed to tell politicians the Jewish community is split on abortion," said Gersten.

Gersten, a former head of refugee resettlement in President George Bush's administration, said the statement was intended to communicate to Jewish senators, among others, that the Jewish community is not monolithic on the issue, while also demonstrating to Christian abortion foes that they have allies in the Jewish community.

In their letter to senators, the rabbis wrote: "According to Jewish law, once the head of the baby emerges, or the majority of the baby's body emerges, the child is considered a person equal to the mother and cannot be aborted, even to save the mother's life.

"Since partial-birth abortion involves the delivery of most of the baby's body before it is aborted, Jewish law prohibits this procedure except in the rarest of circumstances."

One of the signatories to the letter, Rabbi Steven Kapnick, chaplain at the Jewish Home for the Elderly in Fairfield, Conn., described partial-birth abortion as "a barbaric form of population control, parental preference and gender control. We're dealing with something morally repulsive. "

Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of talmudic law and chairman of the biology and medical ethics departments at Yeshiva University, agreed that "there is never a situation in which the life of the mother would be preserved by this procedure.

"The president wants to fudge the issue by allowing for consideration of the health of the mother, which can mean anything from physical to psychological to economic health," he said.

"The decision usually involves a falling-out between parents who no longer want a child, a birth defect or to avoid pregnancy. None of these excuses are justified to allow this procedure…"

Despite the views of individual rabbis, the Reform and Conservative movements as a whole are on record as opposing the ban.

Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, director of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations' Mid-Atlantic Council, said she sees the rabbis' argument as flawed because Jewish law — as the rabbis point out in their own letter — can permit the procedure in rare circumstances.

"What those circumstances are is what we, the religious community, have to be able to interpret and decide — not the government," said Landsberg, the Reform movement's spokeswoman on reproductive rights.