Reproductive rights dominate full agenda at NCJW conference

WASHINGTON –During four days of meetings, close to 600 Jewish women from across the country tackled a variety of topics — from charitable choice to domestic violence and the fate of Social Security to the status of women in Israel.

Of them all, however, reproductive rights seemed to resonate most powerfully with those attending the National Council of Jewish Women's Washington Institute 2001. Threads of feminism and Yiddishkeit came together at the conference, held March 11-14 in the nation's capital.

"From the beginning, NCJW has been a group that fights for freedom," explained Donna Gary, the group's treasurer and former national vice president. "Telling women what to do with their bodies is a form of repressing women. It's also the exercise of [power of] one religion over another…and we in NCJW will never remain silent about that."

Gary could easily have been talking about the NCJW's March 12 briefing with U.S. State Department officials. There, reproductive rights sparked more heat than did the subject of Mideast peace.

Margaret Pollack, director of the Office of Population of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, found herself facing pointed questions from NCJW members.

Several challenged a memorandum signed by President Bush on Jan. 22, the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade. In effect, the memorandum barred the use of U.S. funds for any agency abroad that, with its own funds, counsels, refers to or advocates abortion. Opponents have dubbed the measure, formerly imposed under the Reagan administration, the "global gag rule."

Noting that the First Amendment enshrines the right to free speech, one woman asked at the briefing, "What right do we have to deny women in other countries their freedom of speech?"

Pollack replied: "Our constitution does not extend overseas," though she conceded a "strange irony therein on what the gag rule does in the area of free speech."

In her official capacity, she also voiced the administration's concerns about fungibility of overseas aid and expressed the hope that all share the goal of reducing the overall number of abortions.

Aaron Miller, the deputy Special Middle East Coordinator, also spoke at the State Department briefing, voicing short-range pessimism and long-range optimism about prospects for Arab-Israeli peace.

"However grim the current situation may be, and it is very grim, there really is ultimately no alternative to negotiation to produce relationships underscored by coexistence, and hopefully, ultimately by tolerance and respect," Miller said.

His case for Mideast peacemaking seemed to elicit some skepticism from NCJW members, who raised such concerns as the extent of control by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over his own people and the indoctrination of Palestinian children in hatred toward Israel.

Miller also addressed the phase-out of his own position under the Bush administration and implied that his work would continue, under a different name.

"It matters less what you call something," he said. "It matters more what the Arabs and the Israelis are prepared to do, and how the United States is prepared to help them."

At a plenary on Supreme Court issues, reproductive rights again came to the fore. Former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman and Olati Johnson, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, detailed recent church-state and civil rights cases. But it was Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, who riveted the audience.

"Roe v. Wade is certainly on the edge of a cliff," she warned. "Only one change of justice could change the fact that abortion is a constitutionally protected right for women."

Calling abortion a "galvanizing force for the religious right," Benshoof pointed to the proliferation of legal groups whose goal is to dismantle abortion rights. Those groups, she said, have swelled from just two a decade ago to 22 today. All, she alleged, have a secondary agenda of injecting conservative religion into public life.

Benshoof, who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, cautioned that Roe v. Wade also stands on shaky ground because of the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that allowed waiting periods and "dictated counseling" before abortions can be performed. Such restrictions are now in force, she said, in 18 states.

Capping off the Supreme Court panel, National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg differed with Benshoof on the impact that one new face would have on the high court, but suggested changes could be in store.

She sees nominating a justice as a no-win proposition for Bush. He faces an evenly divided Senate — made a Republican majority by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney — which will hold hearings and ultimately vote on the president's selection.

With a highly conservative nominee similar to Justices Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, Bush's stated models for high court judges, Totenberg said, he risks a "knockdown, drag-out fight that could cost him enormous political capital."

On the other hand, by picking a moderate, "he risks completely alienating the right wing of his party, the base of his party, which he owes the most to."

The naming of two right-wing justices could, in Totenberg's view, lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. But it would also bring the danger of mobilizing women voters against future GOP national tickets.

Conference attendees also stood to honor the first and only Jewish woman on the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She received NCJW's Faith and Humanity Award from the group's president, Jan Schneiderman.

Ginsburg said she has posted the quote from Deuteronomy, "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof," ("Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue") on the wall of her chambers. She also noted the inspiration she has drawn from such heroines as poet-activist Emma Lazarus, spunky diarist Anne Frank and iconoclastic Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.

"The humanity and bravery of Jewish women in particular sustains and encourages me when my spirits need lifting," she said.