One year after Roe v. Wade was overturned, everyday American Jews are leading the battle against the conservative assault on abortion.
When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June 2022, upending the landmark Roe v. Wade verdict from 1973, Republican lawmakers seized the moment and introduced a barrage of legislation meant to ban abortion in all cases.
A year on, repercussions of this momentous decision are being felt throughout America: 14 states have enacted extensive bans on most abortions, with at least 10 more in line to follow suit. In one of the most extreme examples, Georgia has introduced an even more rigorous restriction: banning abortion at around six weeks into pregnancy.
However, overturning Roe v. Wade also generated an enormous backlash from groups and activists fighting to secure women’s health, right to privacy and choice.
In Kansas, voters rejected an amendment that would make abortion illegal; in Wisconsin, Janet Protasiewicz prevailed in the state’s highly consequential contest for Supreme Court – which will likely reverse Wisconsin’s abortion ban next year; and abortion was seen as a major issue that helped curb the predicted ‘red wave’ in the 2022 midterm elections.
While the White House and Congress have pledged to finance pro-choice initiatives and circumvent strict abortion laws, it is everyday Americans who are driving the post-Roe movement. They are innovating with bold and creative strategies to contest these laws and enhance care within and beyond their states, and even using tactics traditionally used by the religious right.
That can be seen in Kentucky, where three Jewish women – Lisa Sobel, Jessica Kalb and Sarah Baron – have sued the state’s attorney general, Daniel Cameron, in Jefferson Circuit Court, alleging that the state’s new abortion law infringes upon their religious freedom.
This is a first-of-its-kind case where the plaintiffs have chosen to use their real names and personal stories.
‘I’m plaintiff one,’ Sobel says in an interview alongside Ben Potash and Aaron Kemper, the lawyers representing the women who are also members of Louisville’s Jewish community.
‘I always did my homework on who I was voting for, and made sure that they aligned with the issues I was passionate about. After Roe was overturned, I felt very powerless, because there isn’t much you can do as a Democrat here in Kentucky, and so I was just left with a feeling of ‘Well, what else can I do?’
The answer came naturally in the days after the June 24, 2022 ruling. Sobel, 38, received a message from Kemper, who heard of a case filed in Florida citing Jewish faith as opposition to the abortion ban and suggested they file a similar case. ‘In that moment, I realized the new laws in Kentucky could impact the Jewish community’ says Sobel.
State of uncertainty
In October 2022, Kemper and Potash filed a suit with five claims. Three of the claims argue that these laws violate the religious freedom of their clients, who are all Jewish. Jewish law does not define life as beginning at conception, unlike Kentucky’s current laws.
The team also highlights the importance of religious freedom. They argue that the laws are influenced by an evangelical Christian worldview, imposing this on everyone regardless of their own beliefs. To combat this, they’ve filed claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, seeking exceptions for those with different religious or philosophical beliefs. They’ve also invoked a state constitutional provision protecting rights of conscience, arguing that it prevents the enforcement of one religious perspective on everyone.
Their goal is to challenge the constitutionality of laws that infringe on the religious and philosophical beliefs of others.
Dr. Ronit Irshai, who heads the gender studies program at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University and authored a book focusing on fertility and Judaism, agrees.
‘Classic halakha [Jewish religious law] prioritizes a woman’s health and psychological well-being over that of a fetus,’ he said. ‘The belief that life begins at conception is not universally accepted. In fact, for the first 40 days, the fetus is referred to as ‘maya de’alma’, or ‘like water in the sea.’ This suggests an absence of definitive individuality. More radically, until birth, the fetus is considered an extension of the woman, subject to her own decisions. During childbirth, if the mother’s life is at risk, her well-being takes precedence over that of the fetus,’ Irshai adds.
Sobel is heartened by the Jewish community’s support for their lawsuit: ‘It’s been really beautiful to see a community that generally doesn’t agree on what is and isn’t kosher agree that what Kentucky is doing is definitely not kosher.’
She adds: ‘One of the first things many of my family members who don’t live in Kentucky asked was, ‘Why don’t you move?’ However, people often forget that this isn’t the first time Jews in Kentucky have stood up for their rights. We did it when we were temporarily expelled from the state during the Civil War. Just like those Jews, we won’t simply back down. We are as much Kentuckians as someone who holds different beliefs than us. That’s one of the reasons we continually mention the length of time our families have been here. Why should I deprive my daughter of the history our family shares with this community?’ asks Sobel.
‘I agree,’ says Potash. ‘You know the saying ‘two Jews, three opinions,’ right? Well, here we are in Louisville, around 8,000 Jews, but as far as this issue goes, what we found is just one.’
For Jewish New Yorkers, hearing their leaders express outrage over Roe’s overturning was both empowering and inspiring. There’s a palpable desire to do something about what’s happening nationally. It underscores the realization that we can’t take our rights for granted.
Kemper explains the main reason for the Jewish community’s unwavering support: ‘These laws are absurd: they prevent people who don’t want children to become parents. These laws are not ‘pro-life,’ but rather seem like partisan ploys that are resulting in religious minorities being persecuted and women facing potential imprisonment.’
Kemper and Potash have submitted a request for summary judgment, asking the court to make a legal ruling on their claims. If Kemper and Potash are successful, they anticipate an appeal from the opposing side. They intend to do the same should the opposing side emerge victorious.
Women’s rights advocates and pro-choice activists aren’t only mounting counterattacks in courts and state senates, but also in their own communities. In New York, for instance, the National Council of Jewish Women launched the ‘Jews for Repro’ campaign, advocating for various local policies to make abortion more accessible.
Aviva Zadoff, director of advocacy and volunteer engagement at the National Council of Jewish Women New York, explains: ‘Our work involves collaboration with various faith groups, especially on the topic of abortion. An example would be Catholics for Choice, who advocate for abortion access within their faith. We actively seek partnerships with other faith-based organizations that align with our values.’
The response from the Jewish community is nothing short of remarkable, in Zadoff’s eyes.
‘For New Yorkers, the Supreme Court’s decision instilled fear and an urgency to act,’ she says. ‘Seeing such a fundamental right potentially stripped away galvanized people, sparked their curiosity and spurred them to action. For Jewish New Yorkers, engaging in these discussions in Jewish communal spaces and hearing their leaders express outrage over Roe’s overturning was both empowering and inspiring. There’s a palpable desire to respond, to do something about what’s happening nationally. It underscores the realization that we can’t take our rights for granted: if Roe can be taken away, what might be next?’ she asks.
Her group marked the one-year anniversary of the overturning of Roe v. Wade on Sunday with a day of action and outreach in their communities all across the state.