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Strangers on the Sofa

Hosting women about to have an abortion is the most direct, intimate mitzvah I’ve ever had the privilege to perform.

Lynn Harris
March 30, 2006

Right now, there are two strangers in my house. One is napping on the sofa bed; the other is in the shower—she just came in from having a cigarette. When she told me she was stepping out for a smoke, I was briefly, mildly shocked: I mean, this girl is 21 weeks pregnant. But just as quickly, I remembered: After tomorrow, she won’t be. Tomorrow morning, after what I hope is a good night’s sleep for everyone, my husband will drop both women off at the clinic in midtown Manhattan that provides abortions.

These women—we’ll call them Shirley and Elena—did not come to New York for The Lion King. They’re here to have late-term abortions not available in their home states (in their cases, Pennsylvania and Connecticut); New York’s cutoff, more generous than most, is 24 weeks. This late in the game, it’s a two-day outpatient procedure requiring an overnight stay in-state. And who can afford a Manhattan hotel and a late-term abortion?

That’s where New York City’s Haven Coalition—of which David and I are proud to call ourselves members—steps in. Haven has no office, no budget, just a rotating team of coordinators who schedule its 50 members for on-call nights every month and phone us when we’re needed. When I get that call, part of me groans—what if she doesn’t want to watch American Idol? But part of me always remembers, even as I’m leaving work hanging and schlepping to the clinic: In all my years of activism and agitating, this is the most direct, intimate mitzvah I’ve ever had the privilege to perform. And it’s a reflection of how, over the years, my reproductive rights activism has, more and more, become an expression of my Judaism. And the same is true for my husband.

How so? Well, our “mission” does not come directly, or only, from what halacha has to say specifically about abortion. Strictly speaking, Jewish law permits abortion only when there is potential danger to the woman’s health. This generally puts Jews somewhere to the left of South Dakota, but “danger” and “health” have been interpreted in a wide range of ways—including mental health and overall well-being. Some interpretations apply the rodef (literally, “pursuer”) principle—a sort of preemptive self-defense, suggesting that the woman is permitted to abort a fetus who poses a threat. Also, the dominant (though by no means solitary) position is that the life of the fetus is not equal in value to the life of the mother—or even, in some opinions, to the life of existing children.

What moves us, what made us both instantly say yes when a friend emailed us about becoming Haven hosts, are the Jewish commandments to help and protect our neighbor, to shelter someone who is in—again, liberally interpreted—danger. And the notion of tzedakah, which is not an act of magnanimous charity—”Here, pitiable one, make yourself comfortable in my fabulous Brooklyn home!”—but one of justice: giving the poor their due.

Because for all our fretting about how changes on the Supreme Court and in South Dakota will affect Roe v. Wade, for far too many women and girls the right to abortion already exists only on paper. The legal and economic barriers that make it difficult, even impossible, for women to carry out their own reproductive choices trap the most vulnerable members of society: the poor and working class, the young, immigrants, and those without people around them to bail them out. Access to abortion—access, not just the in-principle right—is a fundamental matter of social and economic justice. The word “choice” doesn’t even begin to cover it. We, the Jews, are the people commanded to take care of the widow and the orphan. Shirley is 41, confident, single, and black; Elena is 19, shy, and Polish—she hasn’t seen her parents in Warsaw for two years. The only things they really have in common are that they are poor, they are pregnant, and they are in my house.

Recently, reading Eyal Press’ Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City, and the Conflict that Divided America made me think how far we’ve come—and how quickly we’re going someplace even worse. Press’ book is an account of how his home city of Buffalo became a magnet for violent anti-abortion protests and how his own father, an ob/gyn who also performed abortions, became a target. “Protests” is actually far too gracious a term for what went on in Buffalo for years: trespassing, vandalism, stalking, harassment—even murder. Remember Dr. Barnett Slepian, just home from shul, shot dead through his kitchen window while heating up some pea soup? He was Dr. Press’ colleague and, according to his son, the only other local doctor who performed abortions. The rest were—and still are—flown in from neighboring areas. No matter how interesting the ethnic eateries, or tempting the hockey opportunities, new abortion providers aren’t exactly moving to Buffalo in droves. Even though organized clinic attacks and protests have dwindled, I imagine it’d be kind of like buying a house you know is haunted.

Dr. Shalom Press, by the way, is Israeli. His son believes that his born-and-bred stoicism—perhaps more, at least at first, than his sense of justice—was what kept him going to work in the face of death threats: “A bomb went off in a nearby market? You shopped there the next day as though nothing had happened. War loomed on the horizon? You went about your business just the same.” Then again, Press’ mother barely survived her girlhood in a Nazi work camp. (You can imagine how well calling abortion “America’s Holocaust” goes over with her.) As a result, Press’ family was torn between two Jewish impulses: on the one hand, to bear and forebear, to find normalcy in a danger zone, to do what must be done; on the other, to do whatever it takes—quit your job, move, go into hiding—to survive and protect your family. The younger Press urged his father to choose the latter, all the while knowing that the next morning, just like the last, his father would walk out the door to go to his office.

When David delivers a Haven guest to the clinic in the morning, there’s almost always a protester or two, often male, usually the quiet, murmuring, “If you’re pregnant we can help you” type. David always warns the patients ahead of time that they’ll probably be there, tries to get between them and the patient, and then calls me in a rage from his cell when he leaves. The strong patients sass back, the resolute ones stare straight ahead, the frightened ones burst into tears—and yet not one wavers in her determination to do what’s right for her. So thanks, harassing guy, that was useful for everyone.

Of course, what these people are doing is a far cry from the weekly, large-scale clinic sieges I witnessed in Buffalo and in my hometown of Boston during the early 1990’s. There, the goal was to violently shut down a legal facility and interfere, in the process, with people exercising a constitutional right. Press argues convincingly in his book that in that violent climate, murder was inevitable.

Today, getting through the clinic doors is somewhat easier—and safer—than it used to be. It’s getting to the clinic doors that’s become harder than ever. Why did Shirley and Elena “wait” so long before seeking their abortions? I’m not sure; I keep my questions to “Do you have pets?” and “Peanut butter: crunchy or smooth?” (They usually don’t ask much about us, either. One guest saw our ketubah and asked if we were “Hebrews,” but David’s job hardly ever comes up and when it has, “rabbi” hasn’t really been on folks’ radar.)

But I can tell you what some of the other people who’ve stayed with us have volunteered about what brought them to New York. The 20-year-old who slept here last month got pregnant while on the Pill—hey, someone’s got to be that 1%—but was later sent home from the E.R., without an ultrasound, having been told she’d miscarried. She was secretly relieved. After all, she was raising a 2-year-old and her sister’s kid, her boyfriend was on his way back to jail for violating probation, and she was working full-time at Staples to put herself through Katharine Gibbs. Only thing was, the doctors were wrong. The 14-year-old Mexican girl didn’t tell her parents she was pregnant (the condom broke) because her dad had started drinking again and she didn’t want to be a burden. Only when she realized she’d have to travel to New York did she confess. She, her mother, and her father all slept on our sofa bed, lined up like little dolls—and that sight both warmed and broke my heart.

I can tell you why other women “wait,” too. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. counties lack abortion providers, thanks in part to Buffalo-style harassment of doctors. This is why it makes me want to spit poison darts when people like State Sen. Bill Napoli of South Dakota claim that “most” abortions are a matter of “convenience.” Then you’ve got parental notification and consent laws, Most minors hosted by Haven come with at least one of their parents—and the ones that don’t have good reason not to, like the ones with a parent in jail, whose whereabouts are unknown, or who has threatened, convincingly, to kill them if they get “in trouble.”

These roadblocks mean—and this, people, is the evil plan—that women often find themselves in their second trimester before they know it. And then they’re really in a bind. The cost of an abortion goes up from about $350 at 10 weeks to more than $1000 after 20. Even the cost of a first-trimester abortion may be more than a family on public assistance receives in one month, according to the National Network of Abortion Funds. On the way to my house from the clinic, Shirley threw up her antibiotics. She’d been told to take them on an empty stomach, but she hadn’t eaten since the day before. I doubt this was because she wasn’t hungry.

David and I have both long cared about women’s reproductive rights. He saw the tricky decisions friends and families had made; I marched and rallied and wrote. But only when we joined Haven was the reality—and inequality—of access to abortion brought home to us. That’s what inspired David to present a High Holy Days sermon last year about the crisis, right now, of access to abortion—a decision that many called “ballsy,” and for which even more people thanked him. To him, the topic didn’t seem ballsy so much as obvious. He is, after all, in a position not just to help, but also to teach. He’s not interested in trying to change the mind of someone who believes abortion is morally wrong. But he is interested in helping broaden the perspective—the Jewish perspective—of those who haven’t happened to see, in their own homes, the true face of need.

It’s so viscerally clear to both of us that Haven, and working to protect reproductive freedom, is about taking care of society’s most vulnerable. Yet Haven’s philosophy is also very clear: We are not saviors, just people fortunate enough to have extra futons and a little flex time. We do tzedakah not because we are righteous, but because we are just. Like Dr. Press, in a way, we are simply doing our jobs. In David’s sermon about reproductive rights, he reminded the congregation of these words from Deuteronomy: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and that Adonai your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” May women like Shirley and Elena, and those who follow, find an easier path to redemption next time.

Lynn Harris, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor, writes regularly for Salon, The New York Times, Glamour, and other publications. She is a co-founder of the website