By: Rachel Sarafraz
I've been active in the Israeli reproductive health field for close to eight years now. I've counseled, guided and served women from all backgrounds. They were Israeli, Sudanese, Eritrean, American, French, Liberian, Malian and British. Jewish, Muslim and Christian. Religious, charedi and secular. Adults, teenagers and children.
They all wanted the same thing – control over their bodies.
It's easy to take for granted the freedom to decide what goes in and what comes out of our bodies. It's such a personal matter we might assume that it'll always be ours to determine. But eight years in the field have taught me otherwise. Violence, cultural/religious pressures, geographic distance, socioeconomic challenges and bureaucracy quickly expose how fragile this right is, even where it is legally protected. Even in 2019, even in a developed country.
It's a weird cause to choose, the reproductive health field. Sometimes, it's gratifying. You help a teenager become a little more accepting of her body. You encourage a classroom of adolescents to think critically about respect and boundaries in sexual interactions. You give families tools to make educated decisions about what is right for them.
And sometimes it's heartbreaking.
You help a victim of abuse overcome her fear of getting an STD check.
You walk a teenager through the bureaucracy of a termination of pregnancy, certain she'll be murdered if her community finds out that she is pregnant.
A frantic mother cries to you on the phone that her depression cannot handle another pregnancy.
A woman asks for a discreet contraceptive method because she is terrified of her husband finding out.
An asylum-seeker shares with you the story of how she was kidnapped and raped fleeing her country, as you hold her positive pregnancy test in your hand.
You promise women that they will be okay and you have no way to know if this is true.
You have no choice but to become a sieve for other women's pain. They lay their stories out in front of you and you rummage through the details, try to pick out the intimate human bits that are relevant to the bureaucracy, to the law. From chaos, you build a plan.
The exposure can be excruciating. You are immersed in loss of autonomy and man-made injustices, in the fragility of freedom. You witness the manifestations of this in the flesh – the crying, the silences, the bitten finger nails, the horrifying stories, the fear that there is no way out. You are regularly confronted with the arbitrary distribution of control and the anxiety that it brings – how easy to have been born in a country with no access to contraception, to pregnancy termination, to rights at all. Or in a community that refuses women autonomy over their bodies. Add to the geographic dimension the temporal one as well. Rights come and go, sometimes even overnight. So every time you dive into another case you know that you might be sacrificing a bit more of your sleep, your naivete and your peace with the world. But you do it because you know that there is no other way.
For women the right to bodily autonomy is one of the most important rights because it is one of the most important determinants of the paths our lives will ultimately take. Without reproductive rights, we can't fully participate in the workforce or in public life. We face challenges accessing higher education. We are dependent on partners for economic support, even when that dependence is unhealthy. We can't take care of the family we already have. We don't get to become the people we want to be, the people we could potentially be, if someone else is regulating our uterus.
Reproductive rights are not just another niche area of women's rights. They lie at the very foundation of women's liberty and freedom, along with the right to vote. There is no point in talking about whether enough women are going into the sciences or how to close the gender wage gap if we cannot refuse to carry a fertilized embryo to full term pregnancy without the threat of imprisonment or even execution. And we can disagree on the goals of third wave feminism, the effectiveness of SlutWalk, and what the feminist approach to prostitution/sex work should be, but we cannot disagree on this. Like many theocratic efforts, the fight to limit our access to contraception and abortion will ultimately return us to domestic cages.
What happened in Alabama recently is a reminder to us all that rights are not eternal, and so the fight to maintain them must be. Anti-abortion laws being passed across the US don't reflect what the majority of American voters think about abortion – they don't even reflect what the majority of people in the states they were passed in think. They are the result of a tireless decades-old campaign that has managed to wield disproportionate power through gerrymandering and other dirty tactics. This is a cautionary tale for us in Israel, where religious policies that reflect the will of minority religious groups are already imposed on the whole population. And even today, despite the relatively good access to contraception and abortion in Israel, these groups seek to limit reproductive rights. Whether they present as bureaucratic or cultural barriers, or whether they stem from hospitals, insurance funds, our communities, or the law, we must always be on our guard, vigilantes for our freedom, because no one else will do this for us.
We need all hands on board. *Your* hands on board.
There are many ways to get involved. You can join Ladaat's reproductive health counseling center (we are currently recruiting for our next cohort of volunteers, who will begin their training in June). If volunteering isn't relevant for you at the moment, please consider donating to our organization so that we can continue to do the hard work of helping women, men and teenagers in Israel access their reproductive rights. Finally, please help us facilitate public discourse on the importance of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy by staying informed of the reproductive health news in Israel and speaking up.
Wishing us all good health, and may we never lose the rights our mothers fought for,