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Israel loosens abortion law restrictions after Roe v. Wade decision

Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz speaks at the Knesset on June 27. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)
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JERUSALEM — Israel has eased access to abortion in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, a move that the country’s health minister said has set back women’s rights by “one hundred years.”

The new policy, approved on Monday by an overwhelming majority in the parliamentary committee, will grant women access to abortion pills through Israel’s universal health system and will exempt women from appearing before a special committee, whose approval has been required for decades for the termination of a pregnancy.

The committee, made up of a social worker and two doctors, will not be abolished, but it will review applications digitally and only conduct hearings in the very rare case it initially denies the procedure. The changes will take effect over the next three months.

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Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, the head of Israel’s small left-wing Meretz party, said on Monday that the U.S. decision overturning Roe v. Wade violated the basic human rights of women and this reform would ensure that Israel would not follow in its steps.

“The move by the U.S. Supreme Court to deny a woman the right to her body is a dark move,” Horowitz said in a statement. “We are somewhere else, and we are making great strides in the right direction today.”

World leaders from across the political spectrum referred to the United States as a cautionary tale of how fundamental rights can be lost. Center-left Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted that the ruling was “horrific.” Britain’s right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it “clearly has massive impacts on people’s thinking around the world” and called it a “big step backward.”

In France, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Saturday said she was backing a bill put forward by lawmakers to enshrine a woman’s right to abortion in the constitution. “For all women, for human rights, we must engrave this acquired right in stone,” she wrote on Twitter.

Israel’s reform enables women, for the first time, to undergo abortions at their local health centers, rather than at hospitals or surgical clinics.

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Israel’s 1977 abortion law stipulates four criteria for termination of pregnancy: if the woman is under 18 or over 40; if the fetus is in danger; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, incest or an “illicit union,” including extramarital affairs; and if the woman’s mental or physical health is at risk.

Around 98 percent of those who apply for an abortion receive one, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

But the requirement to first stand before a governmental committee that has for decades been influenced by ultra-Orthodox politicians long raised unease among a mostly non-Orthodox Israeli society, which has for years resented the dominance of conservatives over issues including childbirth, divorce, marriage and other aspects of family law.

Horowitz, the health minister, said the questionnaire that women submit in advance of appearing before the committee was riddled with “degrading” and “chauvinist” questions like: “Why did you not use contraception methods?”

“Questions that are not the concern of anyone, certainly not of the state,” Horowitz said. “It is clear that they were written according to a chauvinistic view that a woman’s judgment cannot be relied upon.”

Abortion has long been widely available and has never been a hot-button issue in Israel. Ultra-Orthodox politicians who have opposed it have also historically deferred to the norms of Jewish law, or Halakha, which neither prohibits nor condones the practice.

Jewish law generally prioritizes the health — physical and psychological — of the mother and varies greatly in its classification of the fetus as a human life, with most rabbis agreeing that the first 40 days are equivalent “to a period cycle,” said Yuval Cherlow, a rabbi and director of the Tzohar Center for Jewish Ethics.

Cherlow said the new regulations, while a departure from the past, were still “in line with halakhic frameworks.”

But abortions rights advocates worry that the development is reversible, given Israel’s ongoing state of political upheaval. The country is preparing for its fifth election in under four years, in which right-wing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ruled for 15 years with the ardent support of ultra-Orthodox parties, is plotting a comeback.

Netanyahu’s base has included ultra-Orthodox politicians and community leaders who have — in a rare move in Israel — compared abortion to murder.

The Supreme Court turns the U.S. into a cautionary tale

Daphna Hacker, a women and gender studies professor from Tel Aviv University, said abortion access advocates are aware that the expected elections in November could bring Israel’s most conservative politicians back into the government and would be likely to exacerbate the decades-long national identity crisis between Israel’s democratic and Jewish character — placing women’s rights in the crosshairs.

“On one hand, Israel, as one of the first countries in the world, granted women equality,” she said. “But it is the same country where much of the law of the land goes back 2,000 years. This dilemma is in our DNA.”