Abortion is never simple — no matter the state, the stage of pregnancy, or the reason.
While the nation is besotted with headlines, as Roe v. Wade is once again brought to the forefront of debate, we often overlook the actual stories of women who go through this experience.
But there is one group of women for whom abortion is an especially fraught decision — women in religiously conservative communities, and particularly, women of the Orthodox Jewish community.
For women here, it is a much more complicated decision to terminate a pregnancy, both because the Halacha, the religious law behind it, is complex — and because the shame associated with it is severe.
There is a story of two layers here: There is an official story, of rigid policy, a community that is publicly anti-abortion-rights.
And there is a secret one.
What is not told is the white space in between those black letters — what happens when Halacha collides with real life. The questions are complicated — and the answers are even more so.
What happens when a woman is raped? What happens when a fetus is found to be unviable at 24 weeks? Must a woman continue carrying to term, as some will do? A child conceived of an extramarital affair — sure to be a mamzer, a bastard according to Jewish law? And what if a woman is mentally unstable, unprepared for yet another pregnancy and child — does the fetus present life-threatening harm to her?
Many Orthodox women go to rabbis not only for counseling and advice, but for direction, too. Among religious women, in private conversations, it is common knowledge which Orthodox rabbis rule sensitively on pregnancy and medical ethics. They are called poskim, halachic decisors with extensive legal scholarship. They are often heads of yeshivas, spending their days steeped in texts, and are experts in this specific area of Jewish law. Their names are kept private, passed around from woman to woman; a local rabbi or rebbetzin may discreetly forward a posek’s phone number to a desperate congregant. Whether in New York or Jerusalem, these rabbinic offices, lined with gleaming talmudic volumes, often turn into places for people to unload their tears, as they face harrowing life decisions.
Here, we have collected the stories of Orthodox women who have bravely shared their experiences with us. They are kept wholly anonymous. Rarely could they tell anyone around them — fearing the humiliating stigmas associated with it. Some women approached poskim for wisdom; others, fearing a rabbi might forbid it (fears largely based on publicly accepted attitudes), went ahead without rabbinic guidance, often feeling shame afterward for not having consulted religious leaders.
Best of 5778: ‘My Dark Secret’: Orthodox Women Reveal Their Abortion Stories
These stories are simply fractions of stories that happen all around us.
We hope these stories may illuminate the conversation, inspire sensitivity in those who use this issue as a political prop — and provide comfort to those who feel alone.
These accounts have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
‘I couldn’t tell anyone.’
Lakewood, N.J.: 27 years old, 2nd pregnancy, 21 weeks.
At a routine ultrasound, we discovered that our baby had trisomy 13 and numerous deformities: a cleft palate, extra digits, as well as defects in the brain and heart, among other issues. We were recommended, by specialists, to terminate.
I had never in my life thought I would have to contemplate having an abortion. We went to a posek, who agreed that we should go ahead with it — to save both mother and child from suffering.
Every minute was nauseating torture. The idea of carrying the baby another 20 weeks — only to have it die — was terrifying.
When I got to the hospital and said why I was there, one of the nurses looked at me with such disdain that I wanted to die. Another nurse took me in and cared for me.
Delivering the baby was another hell. My rabbi came and took the body, had it prepared and buried. I went home to deal with lying to everyone that I’d had a miscarriage. Even though I know I did everything right, asked all the right professionals, I knew people would be aghast.
And so I keep my secret.