Israel Health & Medicine: Legal Terms of Abortion
by Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz
A 1977 law ensures a low-cost, and in some cases free, legal abortion to any woman who fills one of four criteria:
- She is under 18 or over 40 (cost to those in between: 1,500 shekels [$370]).
- She carries a fetus with a severe mental or physical defect (free).
- She claims that the fetus results from forbidden relations such as rape or incest (free) or, in the case of a married woman, that the baby is not her husband’s (not free). Single women also fall under this clause, and they too must pay.
- She shows that her physical or mental health would be harmed by continuing the pregnancy (free).
In 1980, a fifth criterion that allowed abortions for women living in economic hardship was abolished due to pressure from religious political parties.
In January 2014, the Knesset passed a reform to the national health coverage law, guaranteeing free abortions to patients between the ages of 20 and 33, regardless of financial circumstance.
A woman who seeks to terminate a pregnancy must first seek approval, appearing before one of the 38 abortion committees operating in public and private hospitals around the country. These committees include three members — a physician whose field of expertise is obstetrics and gynecology; another physician who is either a family doctor, psychiatrist, internist, gynecologist, or social worker. At least one woman must be present on each committee. Hospital pregnancy termination committees approve the vast majority of their requests. Six separate committees consider requests for termination when a fetus is beyond 24 weeks old. No hospitals in Jerusalem, however, will perform these abortions.
The wait to schedule an appointment with a committee is sometimes lengthy, which may force the woman to have an abortion later in her pregnancy.
In June 2022, the Knesset Labor Welfare and Health Committee approved new regulations to make it easier for women to get an abortion. One allows drug-induced early-term abortions at HMO clinics rather than only at hospitals. Also, women seeking an abortion will no longer have to meet with a social worker or appear in person before the review committees. The required request form was also updated, removing “degrading questions.”
“The rights to a woman’s body are those of the woman alone,” said Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz just days after the U.S. Supreme Court decision to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that prevented states from outlawing abortion. “We are in a different place, and today we are taking big steps in the right direction,” Horowitz added.
In 2020, rates of applications to abortion committees for Muslim women (6.2 per 1,000 women) and Druze women (5.6) were lower than those of Jewish women (8.0) and Arab Christian women (7.6). The rates of non-Arab Christians and women without religious classification are the highest (10.1 and 8.9 respectively). Most applications (50%) are from married women, 40% are single women, 10% are divorced women and 0.3% are widows; 7% of applications are from girls under the age of 19.
The vast majority of abortion applications (86%) are made in the first trimester of pregnancy (until the 12th week), 12% in the second trimester (13-23 weeks), and 2% in the third trimester (24 weeks and on). The most common group approved for abortions are those who have become pregnant outside of marriage (49% of applications). 22% of the applications were in cases where there was a risk of physical or mental defect in the fetus. Nearly a third (30%) of the applications were from women who previously had an abortion.
Compared to other countries in the world, the rate of abortions per 100 live births is low in Israel (9.3), and reflects, among other things, the relatively high fertility rates in Israel. In comparison, the average in OECD-member European countries was 18.3 in 2017.
In 2021, 17,548 abortion requests were recorded. About 99% of women get approved to have an abortion.
Thousands of abortions are illegally performed in private doctors’ clinics. Most of these illegal abortions are performed on married women worried their applications may be rejected or take too long to process.
See also: Abortion in Judaism.
Sources: United Nations Abortion Policies: A Global Review.
Deborah Kamin, “Israel’s abortion law now among world’s most liberal,” Times of Israel, (January 6, 2014).
Mairav Zonszein, “Israel’s abortion committees,” New York Times, (June 12, 2015).
“Abortion reform: Approval panels stay; early terminations go from hospital to clinic,” Times of Israel, (June 2, 2022).
“Israel eases access to abortion, days after US Supreme Court overturns Roe vs Wade,” Times of Israel, (June 27, 2022).
Lada’at, (July 2022).