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After Roe reversal, Israel’s end-of-pregnancy approval panels come under scrutiny

Head of hospital committee charged with vetting abortions says Israel ‘liable to fall like America,’ advocates free access to procedure in first trimester

Illustrative: Extra blankets and pads are stored under a bed where women getting abortions rest before and after their procedures, Oct. 9, 2021. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)
Illustrative: Extra blankets and pads are stored under a bed where women getting abortions rest before and after their procedures, Oct. 9, 2021. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

The head of a hospital panel charged with vetting abortion requests called Sunday for the system to be abandoned and the country’s policies liberalized, and raised fears that Israel could follow the US and restrict further women’s access to the procedure.

Dr. Roni Chen, who heads the pregnancy termination committee at Beilinson Hospital, told Army Radio that the government and Knesset should enact legislation to do away with the current system, in which abortions must be approved by three-member panels.

Chen said that he would “definitely” abandon the need for committee approval for women in their first trimester, “and allow any woman to terminate their pregnancy if that is her wish.”

“We are liable to fall like America into the Dark Ages, and girls will need to get illegal abortions,” Chen warned, referencing Friday’s decision by the US Supreme Court to allow states to ban abortion.

By Israeli law, women do not have an automatic right to an abortion, but rather must request permission from a legally mandated end-of-pregnancy committee made up of three representatives of the hospital or clinic that would perform the procedure.

The panels, which approve the lion’s share of requests, vet cases based on criteria such as a woman’s age, how the pregnancy came about, or the health of the fetus. Married women aged 18-40 often have to lie in order to meet one of the criteria required for approval, Chen said

Dr. Roni Chen giving advice on pregnancy as part of a video series on YouTube, (Screengrab/YouTube)

Women have complained for years that the panels are needlessly invasive and humiliating, and some feel that they have no choice but to lie to the committee in order to be granted permission.

In addition, there are only 38 committees across the country, and it can be hard to schedule appointments with some of them due to application quotas. Women face long wait times to schedule an appointment, and face travel and time constraints in accessing the panels.

Addressing the issue of women lying to committees, Chen said he assumes some lie, but refused to go into specifics. Chen noted that a high number of termination requests are granted by his committee.

Nationwide, the CBS recorded 16,492 requests were made to committees in 2020, with 99.6 percent of them approved by the panels. Public data was not available for 2021, but Health Ministry figures cited by Ynet showed 17,548 abortion requests made in 2021.

Demonstrators protest outside the Jerusalem Conference over the decision to award a prize to the anti-abortion organization Efrat, January 7, 2012. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Since 2001, Israel’s population has increased by one-third, but abortion rates have steadily declined, after hitting a peak of 20,000 a year in the mid-2000s.

Some in Israel have raised concerns in recent days that access to abortions could be curtailed, given global attention over the US Supreme Court’s decision to reverse the Roe v. Wade 1973 decision that prevented states from outlawing abortion.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli blasted the ruling on Friday, calling it a result “of a dark and women-hating regime appointing judges,” and warned that restrictions could be copied in Israel.

“It may seem to you that we have already achieved equality, and that women’s rights and human rights can never be taken away,” she wrote in a post on Facebook. “Well, go there and see.”

Labor party leader and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli speaks at a confrence in Jaffa, June 7, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni‎‏/Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who had sought to reform the end-of-pregnancy panels, also joined the chorus of criticism of the US decision, telling Channel 13 news that it “takes human society 100 years back.”

“It’s primitive to forbid abortion. It is something that damages health. It’s all about the oppression of women,” Horowitz charged.

Earlier this month, the Ynet news site reported that the government planned to reform Israel’s system of access to abortion, making it easier for women to access the procedure, but did not include disbanding the committees.

The reforms, which failed to be presented before Israel’s ruling coalition collapsed, would have allowed women to have abortions at up to nine weeks at clinics operated by health funds (or the military for serving soldiers) instead of hospitals, thereby improving access for many women.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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