Shira M. Zemel is co-director of National Council of Jewish Women’s 73Forward abortion access campaign.
I have stopped giving much thought or attention to the antiabortion protesters outside of the Falls Church Healthcare Center every day, just up the street from where I have lived for the past eight years. If this is how these people choose to spend the precious time we are given on this Earth — intimidating patients seeking medical care — then so be it. I ignore them and do clinic defense work to help ensure patients are able to enter the clinic with dignity. I co-direct National Council of Jewish Women’s abortion access campaign, 73Forward, and I serve on the board of directors of ARCH, the Falls Church Healthcare patient fund. These things feel much more productive than standing on a street giving credence to the “antis” with hate-filled photoshopped billboards.
This afternoon, however, on the day that Passover will begin, I will escort patients entering Falls Church Healthcare Center. Escorts are not normally needed at our local clinic on Fridays, but on this one, Good Friday, we’ve been asked to show up because of the uptick in protesters outside as they close out their “40 Days for Life” campaign.
Just last week, these protesters were outside Falls Church High School, with more than 2,000 Fairfax County students and where my son will one day matriculate. Driving by, I witnessed a dozen protesters with their medically inaccurate and scare-tactic posters and banners across the street from the school, jeering at students as they were leaving for the day. How nasty is it to bring this fight to the steps of a public high school? To intimidate young people — people who may be pregnant or who one day might need to terminate a pregnancy — outside the school where they’re meant to feel safe, intentionally sending a message that the pregnancy is more important than their own young lives?
It’s well within their rights.
I love the First Amendment. It ensures people I deeply disagree with are allowed to stand on the sidewalk and practice their protected right to free speech and peaceful assembly. I come by all of this very honestly. My maternal grandfather, Alfred J. Sherman was an obstetrician and gynecologist for nearly 35 years in Harrisburg, Pa., and was an abortion care provider before and after Roe v. Wade. My paternal grandfather, Albert I. Zemel, brought a First Amendment case, Beauharnais v. Illinois, all the way to the Supreme Court.
But if it is the First Amendment that protects these antiabortion extremists when taunting teenage students across from their public high school, then we cannot forget that the First Amendment should also guarantee my right to an abortion according to my Jewish tradition.
Jewish tradition is clear: Abortion is permitted and sometimes even required if the life of the pregnant person is at risk. Much has been written on this. The diversity of religious beliefs on abortion means that when restrictions to abortion are being considered, we must acknowledge the First Amendment and its protections for religious freedom. The religion clause of the First Amendment state: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Those who seek to restrict abortion rights are seeking to impose their religious views on all of us. Though this affects people of all religions and no religion, laws and policies that are based on the premise that life begins at conception affects Jews and others whose religious traditions do not share this belief.
The First Amendment should ensure that no one religion is privileged over others or that religion isn’t privileged at all. This right should guarantee access to abortion for those who need or want it and allow those who do not want abortions to not have one.
I watch these protesters on the sidewalk in my community and wonder if they see the irony that the same First Amendment that protects their right to cruelly harass schoolchildren and clinic patients (and observe Good Friday as they wish, protesting outside the clinic) is the same right that protects mine to not be told how to live my Judaism. How dare they try to encode their theology into the laws of our nation? Of course the antis will never see this. It’s clear from their graphic posters that their zeal long ago blinded them as much in biology class as it did in civics class.
It’s my sincere hope though that the only blindness that prevails here is that of Lady Justice seeing the First Amendment applied equally.