The overwhelming sense of guilt is not singular to Judaism.
“When you’re brought up Catholic, everything is guilty,” joked writer and comedian Lizz Winstead. Even when “you didn’t load the dishwasher right.”
Just imagine how Winstead felt in 1978 when, at 16, she realized she was pregnant. When she told her boyfriend, “he reacted with all the compassion a 16-year-old hockey player with a mullet would,” and broke up with her.
“And I was alone. And I was terrified,” she said.
After seeing an ad that promised “free pregnancy tests, choices, options,” she found herself in a house that bore little resemblance to a medical clinic. The literature they offered her was religious in nature, and they showed her pictures of a bloody fetus. As a woman with a lab coat walked Winstead to the door, she told the teenager, “Just remember: Your options are mommy or murder.”
She was shaken, but undeterred. “I am privileged that I got to have my abortion,” she said, “and I got to move on and I get to do all this great stuff because of my abortion, of which I am truly thankful.”
Some of that “great stuff” includes tremendous success in the entertainment industry — Winstead is a co-creator and former head writer of Comedy Central’s signature program, “The Daily Show,” and co-creator of Air America Radio — and she leveraged it to launch Lady Parts Justice League, which, according to its website, is “a coven of hilarious badass feminists who use humor and pop culture to expose the haters fighting against reproductive rights.”
On Jan. 24, two days after the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s landmark decision legalizing abortion — the Essex chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) presented “Ending the Stigma of Abortion,” a panel featuring Winstead and two other Lady Parts advocates, Jen Moore Conrow and Solange Azor, at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills.
The first step toward eliminating the perception that there is something wrong with terminating a pregnancy is for advocates themselves to understand that it’s not true, Winstead said.
“I want to honor every single person who’s had one to never make themselves feel that they have to be shamed by it,” she said.
Years ago, Winstead said that her personal aversion to defending the procedure made her question herself.
“How can I be an advocate if I can’t say ‘I support abortion rights because it’s safe, because it’s necessary’?”
Conrow, a founding board member of the Abortion Care Network and the director of PEACE at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where she oversees the training of abortion providers, noticed something similar. In emails to other advocates she would talk about the importance of “reducing the number of abortions.”
“We’re saying there’s something wrong. You don’t reduce something unless it’s implicitly wrong,” Conrow said. “And I went from telling people that I worked at a reproductive health clinic to just say, ‘I’m an abortion provider.’ Everywhere I go, and every cab, every time I talk to somebody on the plane, because if we don’t say the word, then we are hiding behind something.” She compared it to the murderous villain in the “Harry Potter” series, oft-referred to as “He who must not be named.”
“The fear of the name increases of fear of the thing itself. It’s like not saying ‘Voldemort.’ You have to say ‘abortion.’” Noting the minor flaw in the analogy, she added: “Although abortion is really good.”
Reframing the discussion on abortion is critical to the cause of organizations like Lady Parts, Conrow said, because the argument on the other side “is not complicated. Their argument is, it’s murder.”
Azor, a comedian, writer, and activist, said that realizing your internal bias against abortion is crucial for anyone who wants to fight for the cause. Such self-examination can help people see that it is “impacting the way that I’m an advocate, or this is impacting the way that I’m a provider, and also the importance of, trying to circumvent the stigma that you may feel.”
The Jewish problem
I couldn’t help but feel conspicuous inside B’nai Jeshurun’s spacious social hall; approximately 220 people attended the sold-out lunch and learn, and I was, by my quick count, one of about six men. After the panel discussion, I told Winstead that I know many people in my Orthodox community who don’t support abortion and reproductive rights because, according to their understanding of halacha, or Jewish law, abortion is usually prohibited (though most rabbinic authorities agree that this precludes instances with a physical risk to the mother’s life). What does she say to someone like that?
“What I would say is that you need to follow the biblical teachings for yourself and live the life that you want to live for yourself, but you cannot impose that upon somebody else,” Winstead answered.
Having overheard our conversation, Chana Yahalom of Paramus, who said she lives in an Orthodox community, chimed in about her understanding of abortion under Orthodox law.
“I’ve heard the point that abortion is permitted if the woman is going to, number one, kill herself if she has to go through with it,” she said, “or [even] that she’s going to be depressed.”
Some rabbinical authorities might quibble with Yahalom’s take, but I know plenty of Orthodox Jews who feel the same way. After all, according to Judaism, life begins at birth, whereas Christianity views conception as the beginning of life.
Phoebe Pollinger of Montclair, NCJW Essex co-chair of the Reproductive Rights Committee, referenced a 2015 forum the organization hosted called “Roe v. Religion,” in which several religious leaders, including a Reconstructionist rabbi and a minister, discussed abortion as it relates to their respective faiths.
“Nowhere did any of these religions have anything to say other than, we respect women’s ability to make their own decisions,” Pollinger said. “There’s enormous respect in religious text for honoring your ability to make your decisions based on your beliefs and your conscience.”
Winstead acknowledged that she’ll never be able to bring most pro-lifers onto her side. She settles on being able to talk to them “in spaces where people see my humanity, even if they disagree with me,” she said. “And they can see me as a person, and a person who cares about other people.”
After years of bitter arguments, hurtful rhetoric, and violence, Jews and people of all faiths should agree that letting a little humanity into the debate about abortion — for both the fetus, and for the prospective mother — would be a good start.
Gabe Kahn can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
or Twitter: @sgabekahn.