Rosh Hashanah Sermon – 5783/2022
Rabbi Heidi Cohen
On June 24 we were all shocked yet not surprised. 50 years after Roe v Wade was passed, after the Supreme Court ruled that a woman had the right to her own reproductive care, it was taken away. It was as if the rug was pulled out from underneath us. There were many who said, ‘the Supreme Court will never do that! They’ll never take away reproductive rights.’ Yet here we are, after years of having to fight, then 50 years of being grateful for this freedom, we are back to where we started so many years ago. All progress has been lost and women’s rights are deteriorating before our eyes. The first lesson we learn, never say never.
We have heard and read the many tragic stories of women and girls who right after June 24 were denied access to reproductive health care. The 10 year old girl who was raped and was denied an abortion in Ohio. Luckily, her family had the means to travel to a neighboring state, Indiana where she was able to have an abortion and not have to carry a baby, being a baby herself. Or the 16 year old who was denied being able to have an abortion in Florida because the judge felt she was not mature enough to have an abortion but felt she was mature enough to have a baby. Or the 19 year old whose water broke at 15 weeks, when the fetus was not viable. Yet, because of the fetal heartbeat law in South Carolina, they could not perform the procedure that would allow her to save her uterus. Representative Neal Collins, who voted for the fetal heartbeat law, had a hard realization after hearing her story. During the State House Judiciary committee meeting regarding the next bill that included a near-total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest, Representative Collins explained his change of position to voting against the new ban. His testimony focused on the 19 year old in which he said, “First, she’s going to pass this fetus in the toilet. She’s going to have to deal with that on her own. There’s a 50-percent chance — greater than 50-percent chance that she’s going to lose her uterus, and there’s a 10-percent chance that she will develop sepsis and herself die. That weighs on me. I voted for that bill and we’re having a meeting on this…. That whole week I did not sleep.” (https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/article264911724.html)
Let’s be very clear, reproductive justice and health is a Jewish issue. We can start with our Torah reading for today. It focuses on the akeidah, God testing Abraham by telling Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. The Akeidah takes place after many more encounters between not only Abraham and Sarah, but also with Hagar.
Earlier in the Torah, God promised Abraham that he will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sands in the sea. However, Sarah is unable to conceive. How is her husband going to be able to see the fulfillment of this promise when his own wife cannot provide him with children? In a final act of desperation, Sarah encourages Abraham to lay with her maidservant, Hagar, and have a child with her. This surrogacy will allow the promise God makes to come true. Let’s look at Hagar as not only helping to fulfill a covenantal promise, but also through the lens of reproductive justice.
Hagar is an enslaved woman. She is a stranger in our text without any linguistic or kinship ties to Abraham and Sarah. Therefore, we are not even certain that she has any kinds of protection that we might find in another enslaved person who might be deemed an indentured servant. Torah does not give us any of Hagar’s backstory except that she is an Egyptian. We are not sure how or when it is that she came into Sarah and Abraham’s lives.
The Torah says:
וַתִּקַּ֞ח שָׂרַ֣י אֵֽשֶׁת־אַבְרָ֗ם אֶת־הָגָ֤ר הַמִּצְרִית֙ שִׁפְחָתָ֔הּ מִקֵּץ֙ עֶ֣שֶׂר שָׁנִ֔ים לְשֶׁ֥בֶת אַבְרָ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַתִּתֵּ֥ן אֹתָ֛הּ לְאַבְרָ֥ם אִישָׁ֖הּ ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּֽׁה׃
So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her enslaved-woman, Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years—and gave her to her husband Abram as wife. (Beresheit 16:3)
Nowhere in this verse or other parts of this story do we hear Hagar give consent to having her body taken (וַתִּקַּ֞ח) or given (וַתִּתֵּ֥ן). Hagar is not given the dignity of being asked to be a surrogate or a choice.
Ishmael was the first son of Abraham, but later, as promised, Sarah conceived and bore a son, Isaac. Sarah was concerned that by having Ishmael around, Isaac would not be in the line of blessing and she said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10).
Again, Hagar has no voice in this, and Abraham does what his wife asks of him. But not until after God promises Abraham that all will be fine with them and that Ishmael too will be the father of a great nation. He gives a skin of water and some food to Hagar and sends her and Ishmael out into the wilderness.
Hagar has no right to make decisions about whether to have children, or the right or ability to parent the child she did have in a safe and sustainable way. There was never any moment that Hagar was given access to justice for herself and her child. Hagar is the marginalized minority woman whose voice remains silent and for whom there is no one there to speak for her or stand up for her.
SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Collective, is a Southern based membership organization whose purpose is to “build an effective network of individuals and organizations to improve institutional policies and systems that impact the reproductive lives of marginalized communities.” SisterSong defines Reproductive Justice as “‘the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.’ Reproductive Justice brings a racial and economic justice framework to the work for reproductive freedom, recognizing and addressing disparities in social, economic, and political power and how this impacts access to reproductive health care. The work for Reproductive Justice was started and continues to be led by Black women and other women of color.”
Black women are 3.5 times more likely to die from pregnancy related issues. Studies show that “Among White and Hispanic women, causes of maternal death ranked somewhat similarly. However, for Black women, preeclampsia/eclampsia was the leading cause of maternal death, followed by postpartum cardiomyopathy, embolism, and hemorrhage. Ectopic pregnancy, the fifth leading cause of maternal death for Black women, was not a leading cause for white or Hispanic women.” (https://www.prb.org/resources/black-women-over-three-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-postpartum-than-white-women-new-research-finds/)
Black women, indigenous women and all women of color are impacted greatly by the overturning of Roe V Wade. And this decision also impacts those who are struggling financially, the immigrant community, and the trans and non-binary community. The ripple effect of the Supreme Court’s decision continues to impact more people than we can imagine. Abortion access and reproductive care access is about the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children women have in safe and sustainable communities. Deny anyone this and we deny people Reproductive Justice.
Allow us to hear from Alejandra Pablos:
When I became pregnant, I knew the current political situation would devastate the family I would create. The same people who would force me to continue my pregnancy are the same people who would rip my baby from my arms and deport me because of my immigration status. I can’t ignore the irony of lawmakers whose only mission is to control a woman’s body, and refuse to support us in accessing childcare and livable wages for our families.
I chose an abortion because comprehensive sex education wasn’t a thing. I made this choice because I did not want to be a parent. The decisions we make are supported by our very own lived experiences. Trust us. I know that when a mom is separated from her daughter, whether it is a country that separates them or an immigration prison, you might as well rip her heart out. I know this because my mother had to suffer through our separation once. I was detained in an immigration prison for two years, and my mom and my family visited every weekend.
The difficult part for me really was the fear I feel every day. I am afraid that the broken, cruel immigration system in the U.S will tear me away from my family, from my child if I had one. I see it every day, everywhere, families ripped apart by ICE, parents displaced in prisons, daughters in jails, sons in deportation proceedings. Fear. I cannot begin to think of planning a family when I know I am facing a racist system that is here to oppress brown and immigrant people.
In December 2020, there were reports of women who were in ICE custody who were medically abused by a gynecologist at the detention center at the Irwin County ICE Center in Georgia. The allegations included more than 40 women who came forward to tell their story which included being put under general anesthesia and having a hysterectomy. Never did these women ask to be sent to the gynecologist or approve of any procedures. Like Hagar, their voices were silent.
Alejandra was all too aware of the situations in these ICE facilities as well as the stories of many who were deported. She did what she felt was best for her and her family from the fear of how she would be treated because she was a non-white immigrant.
Reproductive justice is not only a ‘women’s issue,’ it is also an issue for trans and non-binary people.
Cazembe Jackson shares their story:
I was 21 years old and a junior in college when I had my abortion. After surviving a rape that ended in an unwanted pregnancy, I went to a Planned Parenthood in my hometown to get an abortion. My family was supportive of my decision because of the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy. I’m committed to making sure all people can have a good experience having an abortion, regardless of their reason.
I am excited to lift up the voices of [other] Black trans men who have had abortions and want to give birth . . . Often when we think of abortion access or even pregnancy and childbirth we call these ‘women’s issues’. This erases the experience of trans and gender nonconforming folks who also have abortions and give birth to children
. . . I wish that folks understood that men have abortions too. That gender is separate from the ability to reproduce children. That every person who has the ability to create children is capable of determining when if ever is the right time to do it.
Cazembe and people like them want to have the choice to decide when is the right time and the right circumstances for them to have children. To have the government make these decisions on behalf of anyone is unethical, for who are those within the government that feel they have a right to anyone’s body? There are so many factors when it comes to reproductive rights and the desire to have or not to have children. These are personal decisions that belong to the woman first, as it is her body, and her family if she so chooses. Unfortunately, women and people who are wrestling with these decisions are being put into the same position as Hagar, without a voice.
And finally, the reversal of Roe v Wade affects those who have always dreamt of having children, yet, for a number of reasons, they, like Sarah, are not able to conceive.
Sarah was barren for her whole life and desperate to help her husband fulfill the covenant of his being the father of a great nation, she turned to Hagar as the surrogate. She did not have access to medical care as we do today and the continued development of reproductive research leading to such procedures as in vitro fertilization. However, the reversal of Roe v Wade jeopardizes even the development of research and procedures in which individuals and couples are able to fulfill their very hope of having a family.
Fertility clinics work with individuals and couples to find the right treatment to help them toward having children. IVF, in vitro fertilization is when a woman’s eggs are extracted and are fertilized in the lab in hopes of transferring the fertilized eggs back into the woman’s womb. Clinics typically use two people’s genetic material to create multiple embryos because they don’t know which ones will grow to the right stage or which ones will result in a successful pregnancy.
Dr. Marcelle Cedars, President of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, fears that with the new laws being put into place in many states, family building treatments will also be affected. He fears that freezer companies and clinics could face criminal charges for discarding embryos not used or if a freezer malfunctions and the frozen embryos are destroyed. “When fertility clinics accidentally discard embryos — which happens far too often — they are destroying potential life,” he said. “Might fertility clinics and their embryologists face homicide or manslaughter charges for their misconduct? When the manufacturer of a freezer that holds embryos goes kaput, that freezer company has destroyed potential human life.”
Dr. Shefali Shastri of a fertility clinic in New Jersey said, “The current cause for concern about the future of these treatments stems from the fact that fertilization treatments may produce multiple embryos. And at a time when abortion laws across the nation are changing, the result in some states may be that patients are required to implant and produce all of the embryos that result from fertility treatments,” said Dr. Shastri. “If this is the case, there could be a variety of ramifications including more people simply forgoing the opportunity to have children.”
Abortion access is about the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities. When abortion access or reproductive access are denied, all of us, every person, is denied reproductive justice. This is not only a women’s issue. This is a human issue affecting all people. And as the Jewish community, we affirm that bans on abortion are against our religion for the life of the mother comes first – both her physical and her mental health.
What can we do? First, stay informed. Yes, those of us here in California are fortunate to live in a state where reproductive health care is accessible. Yet, there are those of you who are outside of California who might live in a state where abortion access and reproductive health care is not as readily available. Find out what your state’s policies are and what abortion access is available. AbortionFinder.org provides a list, state by state, and “features the most comprehensive directory of trusted (and verified) abortion service providers in the United States.”
We know that voting works, voter turnout is so important as we saw from the elections in Kansas where Voters in Kansas rejected a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state.
While abortion is legal here in California and in other states where some of you are joining in with us, contact your local Planned Parenthood office and volunteer to walk women into the clinics. And remember, Planned Parenthood does not only provide abortion care, the majority of their work is reproductive care, from wellness exams to family planning. Unfortunately, there are those who strive to embarrass and harass anyone going into Planned Parenthood. By being a personal escort for those entering the clinics, you are providing these people with the dignity they deserve.
And most important of all, during this season of t’shuvah, as we have read about Hagar and we are more aware of the harm that was done to her, we are more aware than ever that we can and we must do better. We must fight for a world with more light, with more dignity, with more wholeness for everyone.
God of our ancestors–
We affirm that you have created each of us in Your sacred image, endowed with the inherent right to dignity and autonomy
We ask that you guide us towards a caring and loving community and nation that reveres this dignity in each of us.
We affirm that reproductive freedom– the sacred right to own the personhood of one’s own body–is a fundamental part of the just society for which we strive in Your name.
We ask that you endow us with the strength and resolve we need because the path that lays ahead is challenging and we all need resilience, strength and courage.
We ask that you protect the most impacted and marginalized among us, because it is they who are most at risk.
We do this work in your name, O God, because we are the compassionate loving creations of a compassionate, loving and just God. It is holy, sacred work.
May our country become a place of liberty and justice for all, and may our care for one another include care and respect for each other’s right to good and affordable healthcare, including abortion care, and right to live safely and securely as we each follow our path of conscience and the God we each do or do not believe in.
Just beautiful and full of deep diving into this issue that we hoped had been “solved” with a constitutional protection for a “woman’s right to choose.”
Bravo for your d’var.