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Sarah, Hagar and the Pursuit of Reproductive Justice

October 22, 2021

This week’s d’var Torah on Parashat Vayera and Reproductive Justice.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, is brimming with complex moral questions. Abraham and God argue over whether God should destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorroh, even through there might be  a few righteous people living there. Abraham passes his wife Sarah off as his sister, giving her to King Abimelech to save himself from harm. God calls Abraham to make a sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, and Abraham agrees without question.

And in the midst of all this, sometimes overlooked, is the painful story of Hagar and Ishmael.

In the previous parasha, Sarah, unable to have children, makes this proposition to her husband: “Look, the Eternal has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a sonthrough her” (Genesis 16:2). “Maid” is a generous translation. Hagar literally means “the stranger,” possibly a label, rather than her actual name. She is a slave. Sarah owns her. As such, Hagar, and her reproductive capacity, can be bought, sold, and, in this case, given over to another person.

As soon as Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes resentful and mistreats Hagar, even though Hagar’s pregnancy was the exact outcome she had hoped for. Sarah treats Hagar so harshly that Hagar runs away. Only an angel can coax her back to Abraham and Sarah’s home, where she gives birth to a son, Ishmael.

By the Torah’s own law and logic, Ishmael is the firstborn child of Abraham and Sarah, which comes with a certain set of privileges. But when Sarah, at the age of ninety, conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, she seeks to revoke Ishmael’s firstborn status. She demands that Abraham send Ishmael and his mother away, this time, for good. Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, where they nearly die of thirst. Once again, only an angel can save them, with a miraculous well and the promise of Ishmael becoming a great nation. But even this angel cannot restore their status, or heal the rift in their broken family.

We sometimes look at this story as a tale of intrafamilial rivalry and jealousy, or even as the genesis of centuries of racial and religious tensions. But Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, Rabbi-in-Residence for the National Council of Jewish Women, suggests that we might also look at this story through the lens of reproductive justice.

SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.”

Reproductive justice is about more than protecting the right to contraception and abortion. It is about ensuring that people have access to essential health care services surrounding conception, infertility, pregnancy, and childbirth, and also in the care and raising of one’s children. It is about ensuring that all children have their basic needs met, and have opportunities to learn, grow, and thrive. It is about ensuring that those who choose to parent children—whatever path they take to get there—can support their families financially while also providing adequate care for them at home.

Hagar is denied many of these aspects of reproductive justice, as Rabbi Ruttenberg writes: “Hagar, here, is an enslaved woman — a cultural stranger, without linguistic or kinship ties, and perhaps any protection.  … But most critically, nowhere in these verses does Hagar consent to having her body taken, given–her reproductive life is not her own, she is not able to make choices, she is not given agency or dignity.  … She is taken, she is given–she is not asked, she does not get to choose.  Her reproductive life is not her own. … Then, in [this week’s] reading, we see Hagar and Ishmael pushed out into the wilderness because Sarah does not want Ishmael to share an inheritance with Isaac.  Again, Hagar has no voice, choice, agency.  We see Abraham give her a bit of food and water and send her out into the wilderness with no recourse, no means of survival, no way to save her son…. Needless to say, Hagar did not have the right to make decisions about whether to have children or the right or ability to parent the child she did have in a safe and sustainable way.  She was not given access to justice. ”

Hagar’s story may sound like a relic of the past. But reproductive Justice encompasses many of the battles we are fighting today. Whether we are talking about the legal challenges to abortion bans in various states, or whether it is acceptable for a government official to take paternity leave to bond with his newborn children, we are talking about reproductive justice.

Rabbi Ruttenberg also reminds us that, like Hagar, who was an Egyptian slave living in Canaan, “Disproportionately, those impacted by restrictions on reproductive health care access are those without power in our, or any society–now, BIPOC people, people struggling to get by, immigrants, and others.”

While our eyes and ears have mostly been trained on the legal battle over the Texas abortion ban, this December the Supreme Court will hear the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — which centers around a Mississippi 15-week abortion ban that poses a direct and explicit challenge to Roe vs. Wade.

There are currently 22 states with “trigger laws,” designed to outlaw abortion immediately should Roe be overturned. Since January 2021, alone, there have been 561 abortion restrictions, including 165 abortion bans, introduced across 47 states–83 of which have been enacted as of June.

While living in Pennsylvania, we may think our reproductive freedoms are relatively safe, our state also imposes restrictions on abortion, including mandatory counseling and a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent for minors, and restricting public insurance from funding abortion care. 85% of our counties have no clinics that provide abortions, meaning that 1/3 of those seeking abortion care need to travel more than 25 miles each way to reach a facility. These restrictions limit everyone’s access, especially those without the resources to jump through all of these governmental hoops.

So what can we do? I’ve joined the National Council of Jewish Women’s “Rabbis for Repro” initiative, and also plan to take part in their 73Forward campaign, “a Jewish communal movement with the goal to increase on-the-ground access to abortion care for anyone who needs it.” Their kick-off event will be held this coming Wednesday.

One of our most pressing goals is to pass The Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA), a bill to help protect our Constitutionally guaranteed right to reproductive health care regardless of SCOTUS. In the event that Roe v. Wade is overturned, WHPA “establishes a statutory right for health care providers to provide, and their patients to receive, abortion care, free from medically unnecessary restrictions, limitations, and bans that delay, and at times, completely obstruct, access to abortion. The Department of Justice, as well as providers and individuals harmed by restrictions made unlawful under the Act, could go to court to enforce these rights…. These restrictions include six-week bans, 20-week bans, mandatory ultrasounds, biased counseling, waiting periods, and requirements that providers obtain admitting privileges at local hospitals.”

While WHPA passed the House in late September, it has stalled in the Senate. We need to let our senators know that our faith teaches us to pursue reproductive justice. 

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin writes: “We learn from Sarah and Hagar that reproductive choice includes, but is not limited to abortion access. The Jewish imperative for reproductive choice is about physical autonomy. That while pru urvu [be fruitful and multiply] is a mitzvah, so is shmirat haguf, caring for our bodies, and pikuach nefesh – valuing the physical, emotional and spiritual life of each and every person.

“From the tragedy of Sarah and Hagar, we are forced to see the heartbreak of women whose bodies are not their own. And today, we strive to do better. We strive for agency. For choice, and for dignified reproductive healthcare. To fulfill the mitzvah of pru urvu through our own bodies if we want to and if we are able to, and to find other ways to be a family or to choose our family if we don’t. Parshah Vayera shines a light on a world without choice. Parshah Vayera teaches us how important it is to strive for better.”

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz