Israel’s parliament approves reforms easing abortion access

Israeli lawmakers Monday approved reforms making it easier for women to access abortions, changes hailed by Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz as “progressive” compared to a “repressive” US Supreme Court ruling.

Abortions are legal in Israel, but women seeking one must face a health ministry committee, according to procedures formulated in the late 1970s and not updated since.

The measures approved by the Knesset’s labour and welfare committee do not do away with the approval committee.

But they give Israel’s healthcare providers authority to terminate pregnancies at community health facilities, sparing women from having to go to larger clinics or hospitals. 

Women will also be able to submit digital authorisation forms to the committee and will no longer be forced to appear in person, a requirement Horowitz called potentially “humiliating and unnecessary”. 

Women will also decide whether or not they wish to meet with a social worker as part of the process.

“For over 30 years, the health ministry operated under archaic measures that instructed members of the committee to do all they could to reduce ‘unnecessary abortions’, including a procedure calling on women to reconsider their decision,” Horowitz said in a statement.  

“The reform we approved today will create a simpler, more respectful and progressive process, and will strengthen a woman’s right to her body.

“The choice of whether to have an abortion must be the woman’s,” Horowitz further said, before blasting the top US court for its ruling last week that scrapped a half-century of constitutional protections for abortions. 

“The US Supreme Court’s measure denying a woman her rights over her body is dark, repressive and takes the leader of the free and liberal world 100 years back,” Horowitz said.

“We’re in a different place, we’re taking great strides in the right direction.” 

The changes will take effect in three months to give the committee time to adapt to the new rules, the statement said.

According to health ministry data, 17,548 women applied to the committee to terminate their pregnancy in 2020, with 17,351 women getting approval and 16,430 going through with the procedure.

The ministry said half of the women who had an abortion that year did so because the pregnancy was a result of incest or an extramarital affair, or of “illegal relations,” a possible reference to rape.  

Other reasons included the pregnancy potentially endangering the mother’s life or health, or posing a danger to the fetus.

One in every 11 abortions was due to the mother being under 17 or over 40, according to the official data.