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Horowitz denounces existing 'chauvinistic' committee system

Health minister planning shake-up of ‘ridiculously outdated’ abortion rules

Horowitz intends to make process easier, end lengthy wait for appointments in some parts of country; current regulations require permission from committees to end a pregnancy

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz gives a press conference at Soroka Medical Center in the southern city of Beersheba, on November 30, 2021. (Flash90)
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz gives a press conference at Soroka Medical Center in the southern city of Beersheba, on November 30, 2021. (Flash90)

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz intends to spearhead major reforms to the country’s abortion policies with the aim of making it easier for women to end a pregnancy, he told the Ynet news site on Wednesday.

Under current laws, the right to an abortion is only granted by three-member pregnancy termination committees held in the country’s hospitals.

Horowitz plans to end a decades-old policy according to which the committees are told to attempt to persuade applicants not to have an abortion.

Lawmakers from his party will also introduce new legislation that will do away with the need to get committee permission for abortions within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

In the coming months, the Health Ministry is expected to also introduce a series of measures making access to abortion via the committees easier by removing some of the existing barriers, including invasive questioning of the motives for termination, according to the Ynet report.

The ministry is considering handing over some of the responsibility for drug-induced, early-stage abortions from hospitals to health management organizations, as is the practice in many Western countries.

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)

“It should be a given that the rights to a woman’s body are the woman’s alone,” Horowitz said in a statement to the news site. “Any decision, or medical procedure, such as the choice of whether to perform an abortion, must be in the hands of the woman. We have no moral right to decide for her how to deal with an unwanted pregnancy.”

Horowitz denounced the existing “ridiculously outdated” and “chauvinistic” process in which women must explain why they want to end an unwanted pregnancy, calling it a “bad joke.”

He also noted the questions are pointless as women can choose to give answers that will facilitate obtaining an abortion.

“Why should a woman need to lie to get permission?” he asked.

MKs Michal Rozin and Gaby Lasky of Horowitz’s Meretz party are to present a bill canceling the committees for abortions up to week 12 of pregnancy. In addition, the roles of the committees in cases of abortions in weeks 12-23 will be changed from approval to advisory, according to the report.

“Women deserve full autonomy in everything related to their bodies, and it is time to enshrine it in legislation,” Rozin said in a statement.

MK Michal Rozin attends a Meretz faction meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, on July 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, such legislation is likely to face opposition from other coalition members such as Ra’am, an Islamist party, and parties on the right.

As an initial step, the Health Ministry plans to map out which areas and hospitals receive the most abortion requests in order to address the sometimes lengthy waits women face before they can schedule a committee hearing, meaning that the procedure is sometimes carried out later in the pregnancy than necessary.

Also, the application form for abortion, which dates back to 1977, will be changed in the coming weeks.

The new text will drop questions that probed whether women or their partners used contraceptives or any methods to end the pregnancy in the early stages. In addition, the application process will be digitalized so that panel members are able to review the forms before convening.

Health Ministry figures show that in 2020 there were 17,548 abortion requests, of which 74% were carried out by the ninth week of pregnancy. The vast majority of requests are granted and abortions are state-subsidized.

Sharon Orshalimy, a doctoral student of health management and an abortion rights activist, told Ynet that Israel’s existing laws limit abortions, granting them only according to specific criteria, such as a woman’s age, pregnancy outside of a marriage, or as the result of rape. Other criteria focus on health issues of the fetus or the expecting woman.

Orshalimy said that there are only 38 committees across the country and that it is hard to schedule appointments with some of them due to application quotas.

As a result, there is a socioeconomic divide, with those who are able to afford private abortions outside the law and committee process on one side, while those who don’t have the financial resources instead have to lie to the committees about how they became pregnant or say that they are suffering mental health issues.

“Women who are not rich and do not want to lie do not really have the right to choose or the possibility of being approved by a committee,” she said.

In 2017, activists told a Knesset committee that 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.

The current rules for abortion committees were laid out in 1988 with the Health Ministry instructing members to do everything to prevent unnecessary abortions.

A deputy health minister directive at the time explained the reason as being part of an overall policy of encouraging childbirth to boost the demographic situation in the country.

Horowitz now plans to end that directive as part of his general reform in abortion policies, Ynet reported.

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