The recent violent assault on a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado is a cause for concern among all people of goodwill, regardless of political or religious affiliation. The staff members and clients who were killed or injured are spouses, parents, siblings, children. Their families are left to mourn, to try to recuperate and to heal and to come to terms with the sudden violence that has changed their lives forever. We extend our condolences to the families of those killed and our prayers for healing for those injured.
But as in so many tragically similar events, “thoughts and prayers” are inadequate responses if they do not lead to action that reduces the chance of more such events occurring. As members of the clergy we want to move beyond compassionate concern to explanation, clarification and advocacy.
Both routinely and recently, charges of medical and ethical malpractice have been made against Planned Parenthood. The alleged evidence documenting such behavior has been shown either not to exist or to be inaccurately edited to present a false impression. Yet, political voices continue to assert that Planned Parenthood traffics in fetal tissue and sacrifices the lives of fetuses to harvest such tissue.
Planned Parenthood provides a wide range of services including, but going beyond, contraception and abortion. For many women, children and families, Planned Parenthood is the only available, accessible and affordable route to such services as screening for diabetes, high blood pressure and anemia. These services, as well as those relating to reproduction, need to be protected.
The clients who choose Planned Parenthood for medical and related consultations and treatments are accessing legally protected services. While violent physical assaults on Planned Parenthood centers are thankfully rare, many women visiting a Planned Parenthood center are subject to harassment, intimidation and emotional assault, most often by those opposed to abortion. Regardless of one’s ethical convictions, we are responsible for maintaining a civil as well as lawful level of debate and dissent.
Issues of life and death and the ethical choices to be made around them are discussed in many religions. There is not agreement among them despite a shared awareness of the sanctity of life. No one religious view speaks for all religious views in the complex and mysterious matters of the meaning of life itself.
Jewish tradition affirms that life begins at birth. A fetus is a potential life in formation until the moment of birth, not an “unborn child.” Until the actual birth, according to Jewish law, the health and safety of the mother take precedence.
We do not yet know if the targeting of the Colorado center was a result of the most recent inaccurate political invective against Planned Parenthood. We do know that such rhetoric contributes to a climate in which such actions can occur. Regardless of one’s personal political persuasion, we are called on to be speakers of truth.
Jewish tradition thus both allows for and in some cases mandates abortion, most clearly when the life of the mother is at risk as a consequence of a pregnancy. Jewish religious authorities differ as to how narrowly or broadly to interpret “the life of the mother,” but all would agree that abortion in certain cases is a choice that can be made and needs to be protected.
Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, we are obligated to recognize that others with equally fervent religious beliefs, or with none, are entitled to safety in making difficult choices that have been both religiously and legally guaranteed to them.
As members of the clergy, we express our strong support for the work of Planned Parenthood and our solidarity with the professionals and volunteers who provide a wide range of medical and related services for women, children and families. We condemn the targeting of Planned Parenthood in current political discourse. We oppose the misleading and especially the untruthful accusations made against Planned Parenthood. We support the right of women to make legally protected profound and difficult personal decisions, and to be supported when they choose by Planned Parenthood in making those decisions.
Rabbis Marla Hornsten and Ari Lorge are co-chairs of JWI’s Clergy Task Force on Domestic Abuse, a multi-denominational group committed to providing leadership by speaking publicly, developing and disseminating resources and training and providing guidance to clergy working with families experiencing abuse.