Erica Pelman, 32, balanced on her lap her chubby-cheeked, 9-month-old Raviv, who had been up almost all night teething. We sat in a coffee shop around the corner from where she and her husband live in Silver Spring; a babysitter was home with their 3-year-old, Micah. Pelman would head to the post office shortly to mail parenting books to the mother of a 1-year-old who took her advice and did not have an abortion.
Pelman, an Orthodox Jew, watched one of her close friends go through an abortion a few years ago. In 2010 she started the nation's first Jewish pregnancy assistance network that offers counseling regarding all alternatives to abortion. It's called In Shifra's Arms (ISA): Shifra was one of the two midwives in Exodus who did not obey Pharaoh's decree to slaughter Jewish boy babies.
Since polls show that three out of four Jewish Americans support abortion, Pelman recognizes that "We're operating in a pro-choice reality." She herself grew up with the perspective that abortion should be legal: "The only thing I remember is my mom saying, 'Unfortunately, sometimes people have to have abortions.'" During the Bush administration, Pelman found herself working with people she describes as "serious Christians" in the Department of Labor's office of faith-based initiatives. She began hearing about Christian pregnancy resource centers and respected the work they do.
When one of her close friends became pregnant and was considering an abortion, Pelman was in anguish: The friend was not interested in going to a pregnancy resource center and aborted her child. Pelman contributed money to a Christian center and received a thank-you letter that discussed sharing the gospel with clients. Not wanting to send Jews to hear Christian evangelism, and thinking that would turn them off from seeking help, she decided to start a Jewish crisis pregnancy network. (ISA helps anyone of any faith, but its target audience is Jewish women.)
Pelman looked abroad for guidance-she knows of two crisis pregnancy centers in Israel-but she also had her prospective counselors attend counselor training offered by the (Christian) Rockville Pregnancy Center. Now ISA has created its own training curriculum. It lacks a physical building but instead offers a phone line and a network of volunteers and resources: "The Jewish community is spread out," Pelman said. Volunteers counsel women face-to-face in the D.C. area-recently Pelman met with a woman in a library.
Her goal is to set up a network of five to 10 Jewish communities so women in crisis pregnancies can have physical assistance and face-to-face help. Right now ISA volunteers mail clothes and connect women with anything from job training to adoption services: "Many people in the Jewish community want to adopt," Pelman said.
The pregnancy assistance phone line has been slow to catch on; a half dozen calls is a busy week. When counseling, Pelman doesn't tell women when life begins, but will educate them about their unborn baby: How many weeks along are you? Seven? Your baby has a heartbeat. ISA points women to sites like Visual MD, a new medical imaging site that richly depicts the fetus from conception to birth. Like pregnancy resource centers, ISA doesn't refer women to abortion clinics.
When I asked Pelman whether she is pro-life, she demurred. "I never answer that." But her counsel to pregnant women, she told me, is: "You're made in the image of God, and your baby is made in the image of God." ISA's board includes people on both sides of the abortion issue. Rabbi Clifford E. Librach, who leads a Jewish congregation in Danbury, Conn., serves as an adviser to ISA and speaks of "many opportunities for counseling and assistance leading to the termination of a pregnancy. This is a very small and fledgling addition to the choice options which helps young women resolve to keep their baby or find worthy parents."
Other Jewish leaders are critical. Nancy Ratzan, president of the National Council of Jewish Women, told Washington Jewish Week that ISA's website "looks like it fits the model that targets young women in a deceptive way." Pelman's own rabbi, Shmuel Herzfeld, who leads the National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., said ISA is doing good work but that Jewish teaching varies widely on abortion. "It's very complex and complicated," he said. "The baseline is that abortion is prohibited, but under certain circumstances ... there may be room for abortion."
Herzfeld added that most women in crisis pregnancies do not go to their rabbi to see whether an abortion is permissible under Jewish law. "The point is, what can we do to help a woman keep her baby," Herzfeld said. "That's the area where there's a lot of room for work."
Rabbi Librach pointed out that under Jewish tradition, full funerals aren't required until a baby is 30 days old, not an indication that a baby less than 30 days old isn't a life, but a reflection of the high number of early infant deaths in the past. "This is a long-term project to sensitize the Jewish community to the reality of young life," he said. Librach isn't suggesting that Roe v. Wade should be overturned: "The concept of choice is not up for debate or reconsideration in the current American political climate. But choice itself needs to include options other than pregnancy termination. So, this is not anti-choice, this is pro-choice."
"A lot of rabbis would say it's OK to have an abortion," Pelman said. "Where's our support for them if they don't want one? ... It's a Jewish perspective to value women and to value their babies."
Not long ago, a patient presented to my office, 35 years old and pregnant with what would be her seventh child. When I told her, "Congratulations! How wonderful! Baby number seven!" tears filled her eyes.
She then told me her story. Upon learning she was pregnant with number seven at age 35, her former OB/GYN doctor did not smile or say congratulations. She immediately asked, "Do you want to abort?" and then, "You must have genetic testing." This pregnant patient clearly sensed her doctor's disapproval of a family of seven children and of another pregnancy, on purpose, at age 35. The patient left that office never to return. She and her husband were conservative Christians who viewed children as gifts from God-treasures, not burdens-celebrations, not disposable problems.
Unfortunately, hers was not an isolated event. Time and again I've cared for women who told the same story of disapproval, scowls, and the "non-directive" push to abort or to look for a "fetus" (not baby) with a "birth defect" (not handicap) in order to abort. Because these women treasured God's gift of life and rejected abortion or genetic testing, liberal OB/GYNs marginalized them as harebrained kooks who bordered on insanity.
-Matt Anderson is a Minnesota OB/GYN