Best of 5778: ‘My Dark Secret’: Orthodox Women Reveal Their Abortion Stories
Days of Awe email series
This High Holiday season we're reflecting on our most meaningful stories of 5778 and their connection to core Jewish values. Over the past year, our journalism strengthened – and sometimes shook – the Jewish community. Here's the fifth article of a series of eight we're sending during these Days of Awe.
VALUE OF THE DAY
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"After Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the future of Roe v. Wade came to the fore – I was struck by the online discourse in the Jewish community around abortion. It was brutally black-and-white.Yet I knew that even here, in a conservative traditional community, the issue wasn't so simple. So I started collecting personal accounts. I wanted to show people that the reality is much more complicated than they think – and I hoped to inspire sensitivity in the wider Jewish community."
'My Dark Secret': Orthodox Women Reveal Their Abortion Stories
By Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt
Abortion is never simple — no matter the state, the stage of pregnancy, or the reason.
While the nation is besotted with headlines, as Roe v. Wade is once again brought to the forefront of debate, we often overlook the actual stories of women who go through this experience.
But there is one group of women for whom abortion is an especially fraught decision — women in religiously conservative communities, and particularly, women of the Orthodox Jewish community.
For women here, it is a much more complicated decision to terminate a pregnancy, both because the Halacha, the religious law behind it, is complex — and because the shame associated with it is severe.
There is a story of two layers here: There is an official story, of rigid policy, a community that is publicly anti-abortion-rights.
And there is a secret one.
What is not told is the white space in between those black letters — what happens when Halacha collides with real life. The questions are complicated — and the answers are even more so.
What happens when a woman is raped? What happens when a fetus is found to be unviable at 24 weeks? Must a woman continue carrying to term, as some will do? A child conceived of an extramarital affair — sure to be a mamzer, a bastard according to Jewish law? And what if a woman is mentally unstable, unprepared for yet another pregnancy and child — does the fetus present life-threatening harm to her?
Many Orthodox women go to rabbis not only for counseling and advice, but for direction, too. Among religious women, in private conversations, it is common knowledge which Orthodox rabbis rule sensitively on pregnancy and medical ethics. They are called poskim, halachic decisors with extensive legal scholarship. They are often heads of yeshivas, spending their days steeped in texts, and are experts in this specific area of Jewish law. Their names are kept private, passed around from woman to woman; a local rabbi or rebbetzin may discreetly forward a posek's phone number to a desperate congregant. Whether in New York or Jerusalem, these rabbinic offices, lined with gleaming talmudic volumes, often turn into places for people to unload their tears, as they face harrowing life decisions.
Here, we have collected the stories of Orthodox women who have bravely shared their experiences with us. They are kept wholly anonymous. Rarely could they tell anyone around them — fearing the humiliating stigmas associated with it. Some women approached poskim for wisdom; others, fearing a rabbi might forbid it (fears largely based on publicly accepted attitudes), went ahead without rabbinic guidance, often feeling shame afterward for not having consulted religious leaders.
These stories are simply fractions of stories that happen all around us.
We hope these stories may illuminate the conversation, inspire sensitivity in those who use this issue as a political prop — and provide comfort to those who feel alone.
These accounts have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
'I couldn't tell anyone.'
Lakewood, N.J.: 27 years old, 2nd pregnancy, 21 weeks.
At a routine ultrasound, we discovered that our baby had trisomy 13 and numerous deformities: a cleft palate, extra digits, as well as defects in the brain and heart, among other issues. We were recommended, by specialists, to terminate.
I had never in my life thought I would have to contemplate having an abortion. We went to a posek, who agreed that we should go ahead with it — to save both mother and child from suffering.
Every minute was nauseating torture. The idea of carrying the baby another 20 weeks — only to have it die — was terrifying.
When I got to the hospital and said why I was there, one of the nurses looked at me with such disdain that I wanted to die. Another nurse took me in and cared for me.
Delivering the baby was another hell. My rabbi came and took the body, had it prepared and buried. I went home to deal with lying to everyone that I'd had a miscarriage. Even though I know I did everything right, asked all the right professionals, I knew people would be aghast.
And so I keep my secret.
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Israel: 31 years old, 3rd pregnancy, 9 weeks pregnant.
I was raped by an acquaintance and was so scared. I didn't want to tell anyone, not even my husband.
I did it alone.
I was not emotionally able to talk to anyone at the time — and "their rules" would have killed me.
USA: 24 years old, 1st pregnancy, 8 weeks.
We were in shana rishona (first year of marriage). My husband was already abusive at the time.
When I told him I was pregnant, he informed me that I would be getting an abortion, and that we would tell no one. He explained that if I had the baby, he would divorce me, and I wouldn't be able to finish school. We had very few friends in the Jewish community; he didn't like any of the rabbis, and when I suggested to talk to my rav from before we were married, he refused. I felt that I didn't have an option.
I had a medical abortion. That night, he went out with friends, and I stayed home and terminated it with the second set of pills. I was alone, and started miscarrying, blood everywhere. At that moment, I wanted to die.
I felt isolated, after that, in the community. I was ashamed of my secret, of the abortion, of not talking to my rav.
It would be several more years of abuse before I finally left him and started over.
I never got pregnant again, which made it so much harder. But Baruch Hashem I did not have a child with this man.
While halachically abortion is complicated, the taboo of talking about it is dangerous. if you have chosen or have been forced to have an abortion, you should not be shamed into keeping silent for fear of being judged and disowned. We must teach women and men that in this situation, the rabbis should not and will not treat you badly, they will guide you — do not be afraid of seeking rabbinic counsel.
USA: 21 years old, 1st pregnancy, 5 weeks.
I was unmarried, in an abusive relationship with a man who eventually progressed to rape me.
Only my friends knew about my abortion. I couldn't tell my parents or my rabbi. I had never felt more alone or ashamed or broken.
'It's more common than you think.'
Monsey, N.Y.: 22 years old, 3rd pregnancy.
My daughter was 3 months old and her brother was just shy of 2 years. I had severe, undiagnosed post-partum depression and occasional thoughts of suicide when I learned, during a routine check-up, that I was pregnant, yet again.
This wasn't only something we couldn't afford financially; this pregnancy and caring for another baby threatened to kill me. I could barely tend to my two babies at home, and ending it all seemed like an appealing alternative to life.
I asked for a referral to an abortion provider. The doctor was a frum woman who didn't recoil at the outrageous question from a young chassidish wife.
"This must be the first time anyone asked this question in this office," I said to her.
"You'd be surprised at how many women came before you," she told me simply.
The doctor called the following morning to inform me that the pregnancy test was a false positive. Words could not describe my relief.
Israel: 1st pregnancy, 32 years old, 20 weeks.
At my 12-week scan, it was found that the baby showed serious deformations in the heart and stomach.
After much debate and heartbreak, we decided to end the pregnancy. We consulted an expert in medical care and Halacha who advised us to terminate, alongside a rabbi who did not give a specific opinion but supported our decision.
It was the most painful few months of my life. The process itself was surreal, and writing about it now, I am crying. Baruch Hashem I have two amazing children, but along with that I have also had another four miscarriages. I don't regret the decision we made, but I always have "what if" thoughts all the time.
I never thought I would terminate a pregnancy. But sometimes Hashem gives us tests we never imagined we would have, and you have to deal with it as it comes. In my pregnancy loss support group, there were at least another two Orthodox women who terminated and I know of at least another three. It's so much more common than we think.
Teaneck, N.J.: 25 years old, 2nd pregnancy, 12 weeks.
My baby had a chromosomal abnormality.
It was surreal. I was shocked into realizing that bad things can happen to anyone. It also sparked the dissolution of my marriage, as my husband could not support me in the way I needed at the time, and it left an indelible mark on our relationship.
Just because you look okay on the outside doesn't mean you're not still struggling with the consequences of your decision.
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Israel: 32 years old, 6th pregnancy, 5 weeks pregnant.
My sixth pregnancy was found to have implanted on my C-section scar. It was otherwise healthy-looking, but would have burst my scar if it continued to stay there — a potentially life-threatening situation.
We did not consult a halachic authority – it was very clear there what needed to be done. I had methotrexate treatment to end the pregnancy. Members of my family had tried to dissuade me from the procedure, trying to convince me to give it a chance and that doctors could be wrong. I did not consult a halachic authority then, either – my body, my decision.
USA: 30 years old, 1st pregnancy, 23 weeks.
The doctor identified severe heart problems on the 20-week anatomy scan, and further testing showed more anatomical defects that would significantly affect our baby's life.
We spoke to our local Orthodox rabbi, who sympathized with us and went out of his way not to give us any halachic opinion — to allow us to make the decision ourselves.
We decided to terminate the pregnancy. We told our parents, my sisters and, later, two non-Orthodox friends.
London, U.K.: 32 years old, 14 weeks.
It had taken me over a year to get pregnant. At my 12-week scan, they discovered a small "shadow" to the side of the uterus. I had a twin pregnancy: one healthy fetus in one side of my uterus, and a molar pregnancy in the other side.
In London's best hospital, we were given a dark prognosis: I was at risk of cancer because of abnormality of cell growth. The definitive study showed less than 30% of survival for the baby if I decided to carry on the pregnancy. The likelihood would be a very premature birth, and also a high chance I'd need to be operated on, which if that happened before I reached a certain point in the pregnancy, this would have high risks for future fertility.
I was devastated. Our local Orthodox rabbi was very supportive and from the outset said that it is I who determines the decision and that Halacha supports both decisions. He referred us to a dayan (rabbinic judge) as well.
Our rabbi was amazing. He sat with us. He told us of a personal loss that he has never discussed with anyone. We all cried. He was sensitive and respectful, and he did not try to throw any agenda or ruling onto us. His wife followed up with support and meals delivered to our home.
I had a D and C to terminate the pregnancy.
Two years later, after a high-risk pregnancy, I gave birth to healthy twins.
I often think back sadly to the baby that was healthy, that I decided to abort. It still saddens me, even though I know it was probably the right thing.
USA: 35 years old, 3rd pregnancy, almost 24 weeks.
During my 20-week anatomy scan, the sonographer detected severe problems with the baby.
It was agony. This baby was beyond wanted. But his prognosis was so bad that we knew he would have no quality of life if he were to even make it to birth, and that continuing the pregnancy would severely impact our family.
We spoke to our rabbi, who consulted with a gadol [great rabbi]. I don't remember exactly what he said, but the message was that, not only was this halachically permissible, given the prognosis of my baby, it was something I should do.
I went through a range of emotions – grief, agony, despair, anxiety, acceptance -- and back again. Right before the procedure, it felt horrible. To know that you are submitting and lying there while doctors end your pregnancy and while you want a child more than anything. Even if it's the right decision, it defies comprehension.
When it was over, I held my baby. He was lifeless, but beautiful. You couldn't tell what was wrong with his insides. We buried him.
The emotional aspect of it was the hardest afterwards. It was grief and pain. It's recovery from pregnancy and childbirth without a baby. It's your milk coming in with no baby to feed. It's avoiding the room you expected to turn into a nursery.
To anyone who hasn't been there, abortion is a theoretical issue. And no one ever thinks they will have to deal with it on a personal level. Until you do.
It's all well and good to have your opinions about abortion, but you really don't know what you're talking about until you're in the situation. Halacha is compassionate and we should be, too.
New York: 26 years old, 1st pregnancy, 8 weeks.
It's hard for me to write about; even years later, the story is disjointed and painful.
I met someone I fell head over heels for. He was smart, handsome and kind of lost. Although I was not a virgin, as I became more religious I had not had sex with anyone for the five years prior to meeting him. I was squarely Modern Orthodox (shomer shabbat, shomer kashrut, only skirts). I thought we were on track to get married. But then I got pregnant.
He was adamant that I not go through with the pregnancy. He felt he was just getting started with his life and that he was not ready to become a parent. I felt that it would be wrong to terminate the pregnancy; I had a job, supportive friends and family, and I was ready. We were at an impasse.
He took me to Planned Parenthood "just to get information." Everyone there was a teenager. I had the exam and they told me about my options to take the RU-486 pills to terminate the pregnancy. I refused to do it.
He thought I would change my mind with another doctor, so he arranged for us to see an OB-GYN. The office was full of pregnant women and pictures of the doctor with lots of smiling young babies.
It was a nightmare. I cried the entire time in the waiting room. I cried to the Latina nurse; she told me I shouldn't do it for him, that she'd raised her son alone, and it was the best thing she's ever done. She said she understood that our religions prohibited it, and that I had to stay true to that and myself. She said she loved her job and helping women who needed abortions, but that I wasn't one. I felt she was right. I davened feverishly during this time; I recited more Tehillim [Psalms] than 10 bubbes [grandmothers].
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I told my boyfriend that I was going to keep the baby.
He kept begging me not to have it. He told me it was over between us, that we would never be a family, and that the baby didn't deserve to be born to a father who could never love it.
By that point, I was in agony – I was losing a relationship I'd wanted, and I didn't want to have a baby without a father. I spoke with a rebbetzin I am close to throughout those next five weeks. She sought out resources and always told me she would support me if I had the baby.
My boyfriend got increasingly desperate; he told me we had to get rid of it now, that it wouldn't be a big deal, that it was just a "sack of water." Eventually, he wore me down.
The OB-GYN told me I would have to do a suction aspiration procedure. (For all the heartache I went through, it would have been a hundred times worse if I couldn't have counted on decent health care.) I was shaking, and I kept thinking: "Is it too late to turn back? If I stop now, would the baby be okay? And now?" They gave me a shot internally. And then there was a lot of pressure and a loud whirring vacuum sound.
I didn't eat or drink for a few days. I didn't light Hanukkah candles at all that year. I was devastated. I purposely hadn't asked a rav any sheilot [halachic questions]. I knew my boyfriend didn't care what a rabbi would have said, and I was looking for a reason to have the baby, not terminate the pregnancy.
Several months after the procedure, a friend took me to an Orthodox rabbi to see if he could make me feel better, after the fact. It was really awkward. We sat in this rabbi's living room, surrounded by his kids' toys, and I told him my story, looking down at my hands, tears streaming down my face. He said he couldn't pasken [rule], since there was no question to ask now, but that if he were considering it, there is leniency in the case of a rodef if you could consider the fetus as a murderer trying to end my life, I would be justified in killing it. Could the baby have been a rodef going after my boyfriend?
Maybe, but then would it be permitted for me to kill it? He didn't answer, but I know enough to know that by that framing, the answer is no.
It took me a good year before I was able to date again and be myself a little bit. It took years for me to regain my level of observance, and I still ask others to say Tehillim for me rather than saying them myself. I have never been the same. Even now that I'm back to being a functioning, observant person again.
I know that if I hadn't made that decision, I would not have the full life I have now; I wouldn't have met my dream of a husband nor had the beautiful children I have if I had gone through with that pregnancy. My life would be different, probably harder, and worst of all, I would be tied to that boyfriend, whom I obviously don't speak to. I'm so grateful for the way things are, but there is no getting around it – it's harder living with the knowledge that I could let myself down in so many ways.
Try not to judge those whose stories you don't know. You know people who've gone through this, even if you think you don't.
'I had no choice'.
USA: 31 weeks, 2nd pregnancy.
My pregnancy was fine, but at 31 weeks I felt the baby moving irregularly. A scan showed that the baby was having seizures and extensive intracranial bleeding. The baby was going to be severely brain damaged, with a horrible prognosis. It was suffering, or not suffering — I don't know, I don't want to think about it.
The pediatric neurologist recommended that we have an abortion.
We consulted with a prominent Orthodox rabbi, who consulted with both medical specialists and leading Halachic experts and guided us to go ahead with it.
We kept this quiet — we live in a conservative suburban Jewish community, and we were concerned about how we would be judged.
Given that we were after the cut-off mark of our state, we had to go to a clinic in Colorado. I went to a dinky clinic with a doctor that completely lacked bedside manner. He charged us over $10,000; we put it on our AmEx.
The doctor said he saw frum people before; he told us that we are not the first people with yarmulkes.
They took me down to the basement — my husband wasn't allowed to be with me for the actual procedure — and I received an injection and... waited for the heartbeat to stop.
I flew home to deliver. I delivered three days later, after being induced. It was a relief.
My ravpaskened that we not see the fetus, or the gender, and that we not be involved at all in the burial.
Baruch Hashem we had a rav, a wonderful posek, who was really amazing, who helped us through the entire process, helped us understand this experience through Halacha. We found so much comfort in the fact that Halacha had an answer, a system with which we could deal with the loss.
We have gone through infertility before; I've had multiple natural miscarriages. But nothing prepared us to go out of state to an abortion clinic. The fact that we had to travel out of state, and go to an abortion clinic with a doctor that we didn't trust, because we had no other option – and have an abortion in a basement of a medical complex that was not our hospital, without our regular support staff – was so difficult. It was undignified. It was a simple two-second procedure — why did I have to go all the way to Colorado? God forbid if it happens to anyone – where are we supposed to turn? Where will we send women? We almost had to go to Israel to be able to follow Halacha. Israel recognizes that there is room for this, in Halacha.
When you don't have a choice, you really don't have a choice. This was a very wanted pregnancy. We are frum. I follow Halacha (I ask a rabbi for permission to use birth control). We went to a rabbi for this decision — and we knew that this was the halachic response that was most appropriate.
The challenging part for us was that the American legal system made it so difficult for us to follow Halacha.
If abortion becomes illegal, our religious right to have access to abortion is challenged.
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