Some 15,000 illegal abortions are performed in Israel each year, many by doctors who bypass the official approval process but others by unqualified professionals who could place the lives of women in danger, activists alleged on Monday.

The issue of abortions, which are legal but require the okay of a medical termination panel — which approves nearly all cases — rarely captures headlines in Israel. But two lawmakers caused a stir this week when they convened a Knesset committee meeting Monday urging the inclusion of a religious figure on the panels, spotlighting the issue and drawing a furious response from female opposition Knesset members.

Attendees at Monday’s at-times heated hearing focused primarily on condemning the proposed inclusion of a religious representative, but also touched on whether to reconsider the longstanding practice of the termination panels altogether — under which, in 98.9% of cases last year — women between the ages of 17-40 were approved for abortions.

Lawmakers and activists present at the meeting also alluded to shadowy procedures done outside of the framework of the law for women seeking to avoid facing the panel. Ran Melamed, the deputy director for communication and social policy at the Yedid organization, told the hearing some 15,000 backroom abortions are undertaken each year, roughly the same number as those performed legally.

In an email to The Times of Israel after the committee meeting, Melamed said his figures were drawn up from various organizations involved in aiding the women, as well as the testimonies of social workers working at various welfare centers. There are two types of illegal abortions, he said: those done by physicians in their private clinics without the approval of the committee, and those done by “doctors, nurses, dentists — everyone who thinks they can,” in a “disorderly and dangerous” fashion.

A pregnant woman gets an ultrasound checkup. Could rocket attacks have had an adverse effect on pregnancies in the cities hardest hit, raising stress levels and causing miscarriages? (photo credit: Shay Levy/Flash90)

A pregnant woman gets an ultrasound checkup. (Shay Levy/Flash90)

According to Melamed, women seek back-alley abortions primarily to avoid the panels, over fears their information will be leaked, or for financial reasons, as not all abortion costs are covered by the state’s socialized healthcare system. For illegal procedures performed by licensed doctors, the bills run NIS 1,500-NIS 2,000, while the surgeries in more dodgy circumstances go up to NIS 1,000, he said.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no police enforcement,” he said. “Only when something happens, such as a woman dying from complications or something similar. It’s been many years since there were cases such as these, to the best of my knowledge.”

The Health Ministry told The Times of Israel it has no figures on the number of illegal abortions in Israel.

“If people are doing illegal abortions — how are we supposed to know?” a spokesperson for the Health Ministry said. The spokesperson said complaints about illegal procedures would be handled by police, rather than falling under the ministry’s auspices.

Illustrative photo of a nursery in a Jerusalem hospital's maternity ward. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Illustrative photo of a nursery in a Jerusalem hospital’s maternity ward. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Abortion down among Jews, stable among Arabs

On Monday, MKs Yehudah Glick (Likud) and Abd al-Hakim Hajj Yahya (Joint List) called a Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality meeting to propose incorporating a rabbi, qadi, or priest on the abortion panels. (The meeting was also responding to a separate call from Yesh Atid MK Aliza Lavie to address abortion.)

The meeting was not pegged to any pending legislation or bills, committee chair MK Aida Touma-Suleiman clarified early on, as some Israeli media reports had erroneously reported.

During the hearing, both Glick and Yahya insisted they were suggesting a religious leader be on site for guidance and counseling, but merely as an elective. Female lawmakers from the opposition countered by arguing that the panel was the last step in the abortion process and women seeking the procedure had likely already sought religious guidance if they wished to.

Likud MK Yehudah Glick in the Knesset on December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Likud MK Yehudah Glick in the Knesset on December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“A woman who comes to get an abortion undergoes an emotional experience that frequently includes social and family pressures,” Glick said. “Including a religious figure is designed so a woman can be accompanied and supported, to make the panel less probing and judgmental.”

Yahya was also fretting about was a purported rise in the number of abortions in general, and specifically among Arab women. This, a Central Bureau of Statistics official at the meeting said, was patently false and a misreading of the data.

“I wish to present the findings as they are, and not as they were twisted in the media after we published them,” Naama Rotem said, referring to trends between 2004-2014. “Among the Jewish population there is a decline in the number of abortion requests to the panel, while among the Arab population the figure is stable.”

In 2014, there were 18,646 abortion requests, 15,660 among Jewish women and “others” and 2,986 by Arab women. The data only reflected applications, not those went through with the procedure, she said. Overall, out of 1,000 Israeli women between the ages of 15 and 49, some 9.7 requested an abortion.

The following criteria are considered by the panel: the age and health of the mother, birth defects, or conception outside of wedlock or a result of incest or other “forbidden” relationships. As a result of the limited criteria, women are forced to “lie to the panel,” maintained Lavie.

According to Prof. Joseph Schenker, the head of the termination panel at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, the numbers are lower than those in the European Union and the United States. “That’s a fact,” he said.

When the panels were introduced in Israel, said Schenker, it was because at the time, there were medical concerns that abortions could affect women’s future fertility. Now, when most first trimester abortions are terminated by pharmacological means, there is room to reevaluate whether women in their first trimester must appear before the panel, he said.

‘Get out of our uteruses!’

The debate drew heated responses from opposition lawmakers, with Zionist Union MK Revital Swid crying out: “Get out of our uteruses!” and her fellow party member Amir Peretz opining that the suggestion of injecting religion into the panel “brings us back to dark times.”

Seated between MKs Michal Rozin (Meretz) and Ayelet Nahmias-Verbin (Zionist Union), a pregnant MK Merav Ben-Ari from the Kulanu party was the sole coalition member present for much of the debate, after Glick left to attend the funeral of Israel’s former justice minister Yaakov Ne’eman.

Kulanu MK Merav Ben Ari in the Knesset on December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Kulanu MK Merav Ben-Ari in the Knesset on December 28, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Merav, go out, why do you need to be here?” a concerned Lavie murmured to her at one point. Twice during the hearing, when Ben-Ari commented on the abortions, Rozin and Nahmias-Verbin urgently turned to her with hands spread, in unison chanting: “Hamsa, hamsa, hamsa,” a traditional refrain to ward off the “evil eye.”

“It isn’t easy for me to sit here, in my seventh month, and hear about abortions,” said Ben Ari. The entire debate, she added “is entirely unnecessary.” The coalition would never let such a proposal even reach the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, Ben-Ari added. “It’s one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard in my life.”