'The rights to a woman's body are those of the woman alone'

Israel eases access to abortion, days after US Supreme Court overturns Roe vs Wade

New rules allow drug-induced early-term abortions at clinics, end requirement for in-person approval by intrusive committees; health minister hails reforms as opposite to US ruling

An abortion clinic (illustrative image: AP/Czarek Sokolowski)
An abortion clinic (illustrative image: AP/Czarek Sokolowski)

The Knesset Labor Welfare and Health Committee on Monday approved new regulations aimed at making it easier for women to get an abortion by removing some of the procedures required, opening up broader and simplified options for those seeking to end a pregnancy.

A key change to the decades-old regulations will see drug-induced early-term abortions made available at HMO clinics rather than only at hospitals, the Health Ministry said in a statement announcing the development.

Women seeking an abortion will no longer have to physically face a review committee that approves abortions. Nixing the committee altogether requires legislation, which is unlikely to pass, but the new regulations mean there will now be no need for applicants to appear in person before the panels.

The application process will be digitized, enabling committee members to have access to all necessary information and at the same time obviating the need for a woman to drop off the paperwork in person. The request form, which in the past has faced criticism for being too invasive and humiliating, will also be updated, with the questionnaire reduced to a minimum and “degrading questions” removed, the statement said.

The form, which dates back to 1977, will no longer include questions that probed whether women or their partners used contraceptives. However, women will still be asked if they had had any previous abortions because the question is deemed to be medically relevant.

“The rights to a woman’s body are those of the woman alone,” said Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz in the statement.

Horowitz compared the developments with the US Supreme Court’s ruling last week reversing the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that prevented states from outlawing abortion.

“The move by the US Supreme Court to deny women control of their bodies is a backward move, oppressing women and setting back the leader of the free and liberal world by a hundred years,” Horowitz said.

“We are in a different place, and today we are taking big steps in the right direction,” Horowitz said.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz at a meeting of his Meretz faction in the Knesset on June 27, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

There will also be no requirement to meet with a social worker as part of the process to apply for an abortion, as is currently the case, but rather such meetings will be available to those who want them for support.

The new regulations will come into effect in three months.

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, and 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, the head of one committee told Army Radio earlier this week.

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 committees 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.

The current rules for abortion committees were laid out in 1988, when the Health Ministry instructed 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 country’s population.

“We have canceled that ridiculous directive,” Horowitz said Monday.

Nationwide, the Central Bureau of Statistics recorded 16,492 requests 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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