‘This isn’t our belief’ — Jewish community speaks out against Ohio’s bill banning abortion

Members of the Jewish community spoke out Thursday against an abortion ban in the Ohio House, citing that this legislation infringes on their religious freedom.
Posted at 6:52 PM, May 26, 2022

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Members of the Jewish community spoke out Thursday against an abortion ban in the Ohio House, citing that this legislation infringes on their religious freedom.

As abortion continues to be a hot topic across the state and the country, House Bill 598 had its third hearing. The Human Life Protection Act is a total abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. It is a trigger bill, meaning that if passed, it will only go into effect if Roe v. Wade is overturned.

Religious leaders, doctors, advocates and community members spent the day testifying about why Ohio shouldn't enact it.

"These beliefs are neither Jewish nor are they respectful of the right of Jewish people to practice our religious values in accordance with Jewish law," Sharon Mars, senior rabbi at Temple Israel Columbus, said.

A major argument brought up in testimony today was religious freedom. Mars explains that H.B. 598 violates her liberty.

"This isn’t our belief," she said. "H.B. 598 is not in the flow with what Jewish law commands."

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There are three main reasons for this, she said.

"One, it places tantamount the mother's life, even over the fetus, but her life takes precedence," the rabbi said. "Secondly, the child is not considered a child until it actually has left the womb — a soul is not a soul, a person is not a person until it leaves the womb. And thirdly, the important thing that I try to emphasize is that not only the physical health of the mother is at stake, but also the mental health, which is critical in this whole conversation."

The Talmud states that a fetus is "mere fluid" before 40 days gestation, however, it is not considered to have a life of its own or independent of the pregnant person's body until "the onset of labor and childbirth," according to the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).

The Torah also says that the Jewish law doesn't consider a fetus to have the status of personhood, nor can it be murdered, since it is not alive, the organization stated.

"Jewish law insists that the viability of a fetus is somewhere around 24 weeks of gestation — not at conception," Mars said. "Jewish law recognizes both a fetus and a pregnant person as having worth and value, but at no point does a fetus ever have more value than the pregnant person carrying that pregnancy."

Jerry Freewalt with the Catholic Conference of Ohio disagreed, stating he understands that Judaism may think that way, but Catholicism thinks another.

"We do believe that life starts at conception," Freewalt said. "In terms of the Catholic Church, we support the rights of the unborn child."

It also supports the mother, he added. His religion has charities, hospitals, schools and services that help people before, after birth and during the raising of the child, he said.

"There's an opposing side to the abortion issue, and I listened to it, but I want to say that we still believe that every life is worth something from the moment of conception," Freewalt added.

It's expected that different religions have different beliefs, but one organization told News 5 that the bill supporters do not represent their faith.

"We at Catholics for Choice are here to give a voice for the silent majority who is so often overwhelmed by this very vocal minority who does not represent the real views of Catholics in this country," Shannon Russell, policy director for Catholics for Choice, said.

Russell shared statistics from Pew and Gallop that one in four abortion patients is Catholic and that 75% of Catholics think abortion should be legal either in all circumstances or in certain circumstances.

"At the very core of Catholic faith is the role of individual conscience and that is determining for yourself what you believe is best and letting others do the same," she said. "I think that we as Catholics should follow our consciences in all matters of moral decision making, and also that we should value religious pluralism and diversity because whatever you believe — the person next to you might believe differently."

The Catholic Conference of Ohio does not speak for all Catholics, she made sure to point out.

"We can't enshrine one religious view about life or the morality of abortion into law, that's just a violation of our faith and of our Constitution," she said.

Freewalt was able to testify in a hearing that was just for supporters the week prior.

RELATED: Total abortion ban hearing at Ohio Statehouse gets unsurprisingly heated

During that hearing, bill supporters addressed religion, saying it didn't apply in this case.

"The protection of life is not competing with religious rights," Mary Parker, director of legislative affairs for Ohio Right to Life, said.

Many pro-life individuals believe science proves that life begins at conception.

"Science says that each life has its own DNA, it's a living and growing human being," Freewalt said. "We base this on a deep religious conviction, but also on science."

The three doctors in attendance at the hearing would disagree with that sentiment.

"This represents a stunning and sweeping intrusion into the patient-physician relationship and threatens to irreparably harm the health and autonomy of women in Ohio," Dr. Amy Burkett, past chair and current District V legislative chair of the Ohio section of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologist, said.

Many doctors do not believe they can answer the question of when life begins, since there is no consensus among scientists, according to Swarthmore College.

A study done by the University of Utah found that about 60-70% of fetuses survive pre-term birth by 24 weeks. The Jewish faith believes this as well, according to Mars.

The doctor and her two colleagues, Dr. David Hackney and Dr. Thomas Burwinkel, answered the legislators in a panel session.

"Patient autonomy is at the heart of our decisions in the exam rooms and is at the heart of the reason that House Bill 598 cannot be passed," she said.

Freewalt is free to believe what he wants to believe, but Mars said he should keep it off other people's bodies.

"I ask you to oppose H.B. 598, which disregards my religious tradition and my religious values by codifying someone else’s religion in law that governs the bodies of all Ohioans," the rabbi said. "My religious values are not represented in this legislation, and people who hold my religious values will indeed suffer great harm if this bill is signed into law."

It is likely that the Roe v. Wade decision will come out before the next bill hearing, so Mars wants to make the position of her Judaism clear.

"We can't paint with such a broad brush base from one particular religious sensibility or belief system and apply that to all religious faiths, to all people of whatever religious stripe they happen to be," Mars said. "What makes me fearful is the fact that we would apply this broad stroke to individual cases, which are incredibly complicated, one by one, and can't be just reduced to this one particular law."

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