Rabbinic Commentary

The Right to Pursue Potential Life

A few weeks ago Jewish communities around the country celebrated “repro Shabbat,” with NCJW, lifting up values related to reproductive justice from a Jewish perspective. A few years ago I read a book that changed the way I think about reproductive justice. Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger explain that reproductive justice has three primary values:

“(1) The right not to have a child; (2) the right to have a child; and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.”

I realized that I had been primarily focused on the first issue, the right not to have a child.  There are a number of Jewish texts that affirm that life begins when a baby breathes their first breath, the first in the Torah portion Mishpatim, which explores a situation where a pregnant woman is pushed, and the incident results in a miscarriage. The conclusion is that the loss of a fetus is not treated the same as the loss of a human. A fetus represents potential life, not life itself.

This doesn’t mean that the sense of grief and mourning in a situation like this is not monumentally devastating. What it means is that until a baby is born, the fetus holds a different status according to Jewish tradition. And it is this view that opened the door for embracing the idea that a pregnant person has a right to choose not to continue their pregnancy for a wide variety of reasons.

Over the last few years I’ve made a mental distinction between reproductive justice work that focused around protecting a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy and the other forms of reproductive justice, like the right to have a child and parent that child in a healthy environment.  I saw them as related but ultimately separate justice issues.

That is until this week. 

I never imagined a world where those who have a goal of protecting potential life might actually prevent people from pursuing potential life. But that is precisely what has happened as a result of Alabama’s supreme court ruling that frozen embryos are children. 

So far the three major fertility clinics in Alabama have paused all IVF services and all the well-known embryo transfer services aren’t willing to transfer any of the embryos out of state, all out of fear that they could be prosecuted if any accidents occur. What if an embryo accidently sticks to the side of a petri dish? What if there is a car accident while the embryos are in transfer? In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, the legal risks are simply too high to proceed with business as usual and so everyone seems to be hitting pause as legal experts determine if it is acceptable to proceed.

It’s a nightmare scenario for all these families, and the medical professionals who have dedicated their careers to supporting them. There are people who have been waiting years for a transfer that was supposed to occur last week or this week. Now, they are being told by their doctors who are as heartbroken as them, that a process that has already taken years and huge amounts of financial resources, has to abruptly stop. Many worry that their current embryos will never be able to be used and their only path forward might be starting the process over from step one in a different state that is more friendly toward, of all things, abortion. 

It’s truly wild how a movement that centers the value of protecting potential life has decided to prevent folks from pursuing life. 

So what can be done?  

Ironically, at the moment it looks like the best path toward protecting the right to have a child is actually protecting the right not to have a child. There is a very real fear that courts in other states that have abortion bans/restrictions are at serious risk for a parallel case and ruling occuring in their states. I know that many folks in these states who are in the IVF process are seriously considering whether to transfer their embryos to a state that is less likely to adopt an abortion ban. If I were in this position, I don’t know what I would do, but I’d certainly be considering this path very seriously.

For those who are not actively engaged in the IVF process in an at-risk state, the need for advocacy has never been greater. It is time to put immense political pressure on our representatives at all levels of government to protect, or pursue, a woman’s right to choose. This advocacy looks different state-by-state, but here in Minnesota, we cannot remain complacent that our protective laws will stay in place forever.  We may also need to not only remain static, but actually increase our services and find ways to better fund and support our already overtaxed fertility clinics in recognition that many of our neighbors from Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas may be headed our way, looking for a friendly home for their frozen embryos. 

The good news is that this ruling is incredibly unpopular across political lines and many folks who typically support abortion bans are opposing this ruling.  While that is hopeful, it won’t change the reality on the ground for the people caught up in this unless meaningful action is taken. 

Here are a few easy resources for getting involved:

NCJW Action Resources for Reproductive Health, Rights, and Justice

Planned Parenthood: 4 easy ways to fight for abortion rights

Contact Congress via the Religious Action Center

More Resources from the Religious Action Center on Reproductive Justice

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