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On Israel’s Liberal Abortion Policies

A recent New York Times op-ed claims the Jewish state restricts abortion more than most Western countries. It doesn’t.

Yair Rosenberg
June 16, 2015
(Meaghan O'Neill, Flickr)New York Times
Women praying at the Western Wall (Meaghan O'Neill, Flickr)(Meaghan O’Neill, Flickr)New York Times
(Meaghan O'Neill, Flickr)New York Times
Women praying at the Western Wall (Meaghan O'Neill, Flickr)(Meaghan O’Neill, Flickr)New York Times

By any measure, Israel has some of the most liberal abortion policies in the world—not just in the Middle East, where the practice is generally outlawed or heavily circumscribed, but among Western democracies. Today in Israel, abortions are legal at any stage of pregnancy, often subsidized by the state, and overseen by committees of social workers and doctors that typically approve 98% of all requests. Last year, the government allocated an additional 16 million shekel ($4.6 million) to make abortion free for all women between the ages of 20 and 33.

Indeed, Israel’s abortion regime is so permissive that it has even drawn rare words of rebuke from the country’s traditionally stalwart Republican backers. “The truth is, it’s something that breaks my heart, that a country that I love as much as I do would take such a position,” Rep. Trent Franks, the GOP chairman of the Israel Allies Caucus in the House of Representatives, told BuzzFeed. “One of the greatest heartbreaks to me about Israel is their position on protecting innocent life.”

And yet, on Sunday, the New York Times ran an op-ed making the case that Israel is actually relatively regressive on a woman’s right to choose. In “Israel’s Abortion Committees,” Mairav Zonszein argues that because Israel requires all abortions to be approved by medical and social professionals—even if it is a rubber stamp—the country “sends a message to women that while the state will facilitate our abortions in practice, it refuses—in principle—to grant us the freedom to make that decision ourselves. And that is an infringement of our basic rights to bodily integrity and privacy.” Agree with it or not, this is certainly a reasonable criticism worth considering and debating.

But then the op-ed takes a more dubious turn. Not content with this narrow critique, it goes on to suggest that Israel is uniquely draconian when it comes to abortion. Writes Zonszein:

Although Israel is often seen as relatively progressive on abortion because a vast majority of women are able to terminate their pregnancies, the situation here is actually the inverse of most Western countries, where abortion is lawful and largely free of restrictions. Israel’s policy may be better than countries where abortions are strictly prohibited (like Brazil and Egypt), or where exceptions are made only to save a woman’s life (like Ireland), but it is far from being liberal.

It’s one thing to suggest that Israel’s very liberal abortion regime could be improved by eliminating consultation committees; it’s another to claim that it is actually one of the Western world’s worst. The former is a policy argument that rests on value considerations, rather than empirical data. The latter claim, however, is a factual assertion that can be checked: Is Israel “actually the inverse of most Western countries, where abortion is lawful and largely free of restrictions”?

Unfortunately for the Times, any cursory glance at the state of abortion law reveals that not only are Israel’s policies not more restrictive than “most Western countries,” but in many cases, they are significantly more permissive. Just look at the surveys of European abortion policy put together by Pew and the BBC. Some highlights:

 Like Israel, countries such as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Finland all require women to consult with medical professionals in order to obtain an abortion. Some require such approval at the outset, others after 12 weeks. Some involve state officials, others private practitioners.

 Unlike Israel, countries such as Germany, Luxembourg and Italy have mandatory waiting or “reflection” periods, during which time women are provided with counseling about other options.

 And very much unlike Israel, where abortion is available and almost always granted at any stage of pregnancy, Greece, Finland, The Netherlands, Portugal, Estonia, and the United Kingdom do not permit abortion after 24 weeks—or 18 in Sweden—with some exceptions for cases of fetal impairment or danger to the mother’s life.

Simply put, between waiting periods, required medical consultations, and late term restrictions, many liberal European democracies have as many or more strictures on abortion as Israel. And that’s not even getting into the U.S., where abortion is far more circumscribed in many states than in any of these countries. Thus, the Times’ allegation that Israel’s abortion stance is “the inverse of most Western countries” is a misleading—and demonstrably false—claim.

The problem with the op-ed, however, is not just that it is partly premised on a factual error. It’s not even that it singles out Israel for opprobrium when other Western states have near identical policies, making the world’s only Jewish state the stand-in for the world’s alleged ills. It’s that poorly-sourced polemics against Israel like this one erode the Times’ ability to be an effective arbiter of the very necessary debate about the Jewish state and its policies.

As both an Iranian nuclear deal and prospective U.N. Security Council resolution on the two-state solution loom on the horizon, there is a pressing need for a constructive and credible forum in which Israel and its future can be discussed. Israelis and their supporters need to hear what the international community has to say, and grant it serious consideration, including when it is sharply critical.

But when Israelis see even their most progressive achievements—whether on LGBT rights or women’s rights—twisted into tortuous attacks on their country, they tune out instead of tuning in, and begin to suspect that nothing they can do will ever satisfy their critics abroad. Indeed, the Israeli right has won successive elections arguing that the world will hate Israel no matter what it does, and so Israel might as well ignore the world. Op-eds like this one, in which Israel can do no right, confirm that worldview, and erode the Times’ ability to reach the very people it must persuade.

It can—and must—do better.

Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.