Leanne Gale is the NCJW Grassroots Associate. She formerly lived and worked in Jerusalem as a New Israel Fund/Shatil Social Justice Fellow, where she worked closely with the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem. She is a published author with pieces appearing in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development and the Jewish Daily Forward.
My head hurt. I was riding the train home for Passover with my family, and the air was dry, and my head hurt. Between the “personhood amendment” pre-filed in Louisiana (which could virtually ban all abortion in the state, and some types of contraception), the “abortion reversal” law passed in Arizona (requiring doctors to provide medically inaccurate information to patients seeking abortion care), and the chilling outcome of the Purvi Patel case in Indiana (imprisoning a woman basically for having a miscarriage), it had been a miserable week.
How could I celebrate liberation this Passover? I closed my eyes and sunk under the weight. In just a few hours, I would be raising my fourth cup of wine at the Seder table while a young woman, probably just a few bocks away, would be frantically collecting the funds to pay for an abortion out of pocket. Because Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion in most states. Because states across the country have proposed over 235 anti-abortion laws in just the past three months. Because these days, as has long been the case, unfettered access to abortion is only for wealthy white women.
Then I got to thinking. State sanctioned restrictions on abortion access constitute a form of reproductive oppression: the control and exploitation of women, girls, and individuals through our bodies, sexuality, labor, and reproduction. Reproductive oppression can take the form of population control and sterilization, as many women of color have faced throughout our country’s history, or it can take the form of restrictions on access to abortion and family planning. At its core, reproductive oppression is about the denial of agency to women to make our own decisions about whether and when to become parents. It’s about restricting access to the full range of reproductive healthcare services, including contraception and abortion. And it’s about forcing parents to raise children in unhealthy, unsafe environments, where families may be targeted by police or denied proper accommodations for disabilities.
That’s when I realized that the Passover story is also about reproductive oppression. In the Passover story, fearing that the Hebrews will grow powerful and undermine the Egyptian labor economy, Pharaoh attempts to control the Hebrew slave population by commanding his Egyptian midwives to kill the male infants born to Hebrew women. This is a form of reproductive oppression, wresting control from the Hebrew women over their own bodies, families, and reproductive lives. The Egyptian midwives, however, refuse to carry out their orders and stand in solidarity with their Hebrew sisters. They use their privilege in service of justice.
It gives me hope to think that the Passover story, the central story of Jewish liberation, is rooted in a resistance to reproductive oppression. I’ve learned that discrimination often acts itself out on women’s bodies, shrinking us into vessels for desirable or undesirable children. The Pharaoh was threatened by the Hebrews, and it was birthing mothers who were forced to pay the price. Today, as anti-choice politicians play politics with our lives, women are forced to remain pregnant against their will, or to raise children without access to healthcare, or to face interrogation and prison simply for having a miscarriage. And it’s no coincidence that the women most affected are those already struggling to make ends meet, who are disproportionately women of color, young women, and immigrant women.
This year, may we stand in solidarity with the women denied the basic human right to decide when and whether to parent. Next year, may our solidarity set us free.