Lived experience: A conversation with Michal Raucher on reproductive justice

By Meg Bernstein

Michal Raucher

Michal Raucher is an associate professor of Jewish Studies and the undergraduate director for the department at Rutgers University. She holds a PhD from Northwestern in Religious Studies, as well as a master’s degree in Bioethics from the University of Pennsylvania. In 2020, Dr. Raucher published a book on her ethnographic studies in reproductive choices among Haredi women in Israel. In addition, she has published dozens of articles, essays, blog posts, and op-eds addressing reproductive issues and medical ethics from a Jewish perspective. She is currently working on a new book about Orthodox women rabbis that she hopes to publish in 2024. Before that, Dr. Raucher will launch a large-scale research project to collect more information on Jews who have had abortions; this will take the form of a website with a detailed survey for Jews who have had abortions to share their stories and reasons, along with an option to participate in a more personal interview. She is hoping this research will shed light on the complex reasons why Jewish people have abortions, so that the community can use that information to find a better way of talking about this issue, one that honors the myriad experiences of lived Judaism.

Recently, Dr. Raucher published an article the inaugural issue of Masorti: The New Journal of Conservative Judaism. This article, titled “From Justification to Justice: Calling for a New Conservative Movement Position on Abortion,” tackles the Conservative movement’s past teshuvot, or formal halachic positions, on abortion. Raucher argues that these teshuvot are inherently ethically flawed as they are based on a justification framework that assumes abortion is always morally incorrect but allowable in certain circumstances. This approach ignores the lived experiences of those who become pregnant and have abortions, including the complex and careful reasoning that goes into making this decision. It perpetuates the shame surrounding abortion experiences and devalues the folks who make these choices for reasons that do not fall within the moral framework. She questions the use of textually based arguments from Torah and Talmud, as well as later rabbinic writings, as many of the sources do not seem to directly address abortion, nor do they consider women as more than merely objects in a legal context. An ethical approach to abortion, and the one she hopes to see the Rabbinical Assembly eventually take, she writes, should “center the lived experiences of Jews who have terminated pregnancies.”

Raucher was a guest speaker at Eastern Michigan University center for Jewish Studies on March 13, and I interviewed her after her presentation.

Meg Bernstein: Tell me a little bit about your Jewish background and how you came to be doing the work you are currently doing.

Michal Raucher: I grew up as a Conservative Jew in an observant family. I went to Schechter schools through 8th grade, and then I went to a public high school. When I went to college, I was at JTS [the Jewish Theological Seminary] and Columbia, where I studied Hebrew bible and religion. In college, I was interested in journalism and medicine, but I ended up focusing on religion and medical ethics. I did a masters at Penn in bioethics. I was very motivated by ethical questions, looking at the anthropological perspective of how people make what they consider to be ethical decisions — a more local, individual understanding of ethics when it came to medical decisions. I continued studying religion and ethics at Northwestern with a focus on women’s and gender studies, anthropology, and Jewish studies. All of these subjects came together with my particular interest in reproduction.

Meg: At first that seems kind of all over the place — it’s quite a lot! — but it really comes together in a way that makes sense and fuels a lot of your research. So, can you talk a little bit about what you learned from your ethnographic research among Haredi women concerning reproductive ethics?

Michal: If you were to look at the field of Jewish medical ethics 15 years ago, you would find it was dominated by rabbis or people with specializations in rabbinic law basically saying what is halachically permissible is ethically permissible and equating those two. And I was really frustrated by that! I knew from my own background as well as just from being a Jew in the world that Judaism is a lived religion. Even people who proclaim to be [very halachic] have adaptations and personal understandings of halacha, so I wanted to know where halacha fit into an individual’s decision making around medical issues. So, I did my research on-site in Israel with Haredi, ultra-Orthodox women who were making medical decisions. I focused on reproduction because in Israel in the early 2000s there was this explosion of interest in how pronatalism was affecting Jewish Israelis’ access to or use of reproductive technology. I ended up interviewing about 25 women multiple times over the course of their pregnancies, going to doctor appointments with them, observing them in prenatal classes. I interviewed doctors, nurses, doulas, and midwives. I also spent some time with an anti-abortion group doing participant observation. What was really surprising to me was that after a few pregnancies, [these women] felt like they didn’t need to go to their rabbi anymore because they felt like their rabbis no longer had authority over their pregnancies, that they now had the authority for themselves.

Meg: So you talk about this a little bit in your recent article for Masorti, but can you explain the difference between abortion rights and reproductive freedom?

Michal: The movement for reproductive justice was so named in 1994 by 12 Black women who had been advocating for a wider understanding of reproductive health rights and justice. For decades there had been an understanding that attention to abortion rights was limited to particularly white women who felt like their rights could be supported by the government. And the fight for abortion rights ignored the fact that for generations Black women and other women of color had been forcibly sterilized. So, what these women wanted was not just the right to an abortion but the right to have children. And the right to make reproductive decisions that also included raising children in healthy, safe environments. Reproductive justice turns attention toward the ability to access abortion, contraception, sexual education, good maternal and fetal healthcare. It’s not just about rights — you have to be able to access those things. What good is the right to abortion when there’s no clinic in your state? So, with a reproductive justice lens we can see that bigger picture instead of just focusing on abortion.

Meg: So why isn’t textual evidence for the support of abortion in Jewish law satisfactory? And is it valuable for us to explore these textual sources at all in this area?

Michal: Well first, the texts we have been using are not actually supportive of abortion. The texts that we have been using support a justification framework for abortion which means that certain abortions are permissible and other abortions are not. That approach is ethically problematic. It’s not based on autonomy of any individual person. They require somebody justify their abortion, overlooking an individual’s choice. The situations under which an individual could be permitted to have an abortion under the justification framework are very limited, so [the textual approach] only supports abortion in 25% of cases. A justification approach starts from the assumption that abortion is wrong except in certain circumstances, and I don’t believe that’s advocating for abortion. Advocating for abortion — as in “abortion is healthcare” or “abortion is a right” — it’s neutral. But the justification framework proffers a value judgment. Another reason why I think the textual approaches are insufficient have to do with a feminist critique. The halachic system is patriarchal, written by men and intended by men, not taking into account women’s experiences. A feminist approach demands that issues that predominately relate to women should not be dominated by men’s perspectives.

Meg: You said in an article published in the Jewish Standard that 62% of folks who have had abortions identify as religious, and I take that to mean all faiths. If they aren’t looking for textual or religious law to support these choices, how else does their religious affiliation or observance factor into this decision?

Michal: So, of that 62%, 54% were Christian, so the majority of our data is coming from Christians. And in that data what we’re seeing is that a few things happen. Among people who are having abortions, [some] end up feeling like they’re committing a sin. Other times, they think about religion differently. They are thinking, “I’m not gonna tell my pastor or rabbi; I’m not going to tell my mother who is very religious because she would not approve, but I believe God would support my choice.” They’ve developed a more personalized understanding of God, an understanding that’s more justice oriented. They’re seeing that God understands the reasons they’re having abortions in a way that they think people wouldn’t understand. Religion doesn’t mean text for everybody. Religion doesn’t mean religious leaders. The way they’ve come to understand God is a central piece of their religious feelings around abortion. So many people are having abortions because they can’t afford a child or because they’re not in a place to raise one for any number of reasons, and they’re like, “God wouldn’t want me to have a child right now. God wants more for me here. God doesn’t want this child to suffer because they don’t have enough.” Justice oriented, not dogmatic issues that are very situational. What we know is that people, when they’re thinking about whether they should have an abortion, the question is not abstract. It’s not “is abortion okay.” And that’s part of the problem with some of these religious ruminations on abortion.

Meg: You mentioned in your Masorti article the lack of ritual around abortion. Can you tell me what you learned about that and what you think is a stumbling block to including this experience in ritual life?

Michal: There are a handful of abortion rituals that have been developed over the last few years, kind of reimagining ritual and feminist innovation. But I don’t know how frequently those rituals are being used. About a year ago a good friend of mine had an abortion and asked me to put together a ritual, and when I was doing the research, it was very hard to find information. I also found that there was a lot of emotion assumed in the rituals [that I did find], whether it was grief or relief or whatever. But there’s nothing formal at synagogue — although there could be, but they require that one feel comfortable enough in their congregation to tell their rabbi and then tell their community. There’s a lot of talk about children and having children in Jewish spaces, and I think people see abortion as contrary to that. We have a community that is so invested in women’s reproductive experiences if they yield live children, and then if they don’t, we have such secrecy and shame around it. I think we still just have a lot of stigma in Jewish communities around abortion.

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