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Home > Family & Lifecycles > Effects of divorce last well into adulthood, expert says

Reproductive rights take center stage for NCJW
Conference also takes charitable choice, domestic violence, women in Israel


by Paula Amann
Washington Jewish Week
March 14, 2001

WASHINGTON--A journalist explains her delayed appearance on a speaker's dais: She flew from her stroke-ridden mother-in-laws bedside that morning. An advocate analyzes threats to Roe v. Wade, earning a standing ovation. The first women's studies program in Israel sees its official launch. And a judicial honoree claims to have the only mezuzah at her workplace, the United States Supreme Court.

These threads of feminism and Yiddishkeit came together at the Washington Institute 2001 of the National Council of Jewish Women, held Sunday through Wednesday in the District.

During four days of meetings, close to 600 participants from across the country tackled a variety of topics, from charitable choice to domestic violence and the fate of social security to the status of women in Israel.

Among them all, however, reproductive rights seemed to resonate most powerfully with NCJW members.

"From the beginning, NCJW has been a group that fights for freedom," explained the group's former national vice president and current treasurer, Donna Gary, a District resident. "Telling women what to do with their bodies is a form of repressing women. It's also the exercise of [power of] one religion over another ... and we in NCJW will never remain silent about that."

Gary, a District resident, could have been talking about a Monday briefing with U.S. State Department officials. There, reproductive rights sparked more heat than did the subject of Mideast peace.

Margaret Pollack, director of the Office of Population of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, found herself facing pointed questions from NCJW members.

Several challenged a memorandum signed by President George W. Bush on Jan. 22 the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision upholding the right to abortion which reinstated the Mexico City Policy proclaimed by President Reagan in 1984.

In effect, the memorandum bars the use of U.S. funds for any agency abroad that, with its own funds, counsels, refers for or advocates abortion. Opponents have dubbed the measure the global gag rule.

Noting that the First Amendment enshrines the right to free speech, one woman asked at the briefing, "What right do we have to deny women in other countries their freedom of speech?"

"Our constitution does not extend overseas," countered Pollack, but conceded a "strange irony therein on what the gag rule does in the area of free speech."

In her official capacity, she also voiced the administration's concerns about fungibility of overseas aid and expressed the hope that all share the goal of reducing the overall number of abortions.

Aaron Miller, the deputy special Middle East coordinator, also spoke at the State Department briefing, voicing short-range pessimism and long-range optimism about prospects for Arab-Israeli peace.

"However grim the current situation may be and it is very grim there really is ultimately no alternative to negotiation to produce relationships underscored by co-existence, and hopefully, ultimately by tolerance and respect."

His case for Mideast peacemaking seemed to elicit some skepticism from NCJW members, who raised such concerns as the extent of control by Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over his own people and the indoctrination of Palestinian children in hatred toward Israel.

Miller also addressed the phaseout of his own position under the new Bush administration and implied that his work would continue, under a different name.

"It matters less what you call something," he said. "It matters more what the Arabs and the Israelis are prepared to do, and how the United States is prepared to help them."

At a plenary on Supreme Court issues, reproductive rights again came to the fore. Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman and Olati Johnson, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, detailed recent church-state and civil rights cases, but it was Janet Benshoof, president of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, who riveted the audience.

"Roe v. Wade is certainly on the edge of a cliff," she warned, predicting that, "Only one change of justice could change the fact that abortion is a constitutionally protected right for women."

Calling abortion a "galvanizing force for the religious right," Benshoof pointed to the proliferation of legal groups whose goal is to dismantle abortion rights. Those groups, she said, have swelled from just two a decade ago to 22 today. All, she alleged, have a secondary agenda of injecting conservative religion into public life.

Benshoof, who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, cautioned that Roe v. Wade also stands on shaky ground because of the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey that allowed waiting periods and "dictated counseling" before abortions can be performed. Such restrictions are now in force, she said, in 18 states.

"It's as if you can join a synagogue, but have to take a course in Christian ethics first," Benshoof quipped.

Capping off the Supreme Court panel, National Public Radio legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg differed with Benshoof on the impact that one new face would have on the high court, but suggested changes could be in store.

She sees nominating a justice as a no-win choice for Bush. He faces an evenly divided Senate, made a Republican majority by the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Dick Cheney, which will hold hearings and ultimately vote on the president's selection.

With a highly conservative nominee similar to Justices Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, Bush's stated models for high court judges, said Totenberg, he risks a "knockdown, drag-out fight that could cost him enormous political capital.

On the other hand, by picking a moderate, "he risks completely alienating the right wing of his party, the base of his party, which he owes the most to."

The naming of two right-wing justices could, in Totenberg's view, lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, but with it, the danger of mobilizing women voters against future GOP national tickets.

While listening to, learning from and questioning a host of such speakers on a range of topics, NCJW members also celebrated their heroines. A closing breakfast yesterday was to honor grassroots activists such as Million Mom March founder Donna Dees-Thomases and Cecile Richards, daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and founder of the Texas Freedom Network, which fights the religious right.

On Monday, however, Jewish women activists stood to honor the first and only Jewish woman on the U.S.

Supreme Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received NCJW's Faith and Humanity Award from the group's president, Jan Schneiderman.

In a brief acceptance speech, Ginsburg eschewed politics, perhaps in light of criticism she drew after some mordant remarks made in Melbourne, Australia, shortly after the 5 to 4 Bush v. Gore decision that clinched the last presidential contest.

The honoree said she's posted the quote from Deuteronomy, "Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof," ("Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue") on the wall of her chambers. She also noted the inspiration she has drawn from such heroines as poet-activist Emma Lazarus, spunky Holocaust-era diarist Anne Frank and iconoclastic Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.

"The humanity and bravery of Jewish women in particular sustains and encourages me when my spirits need lifting."

As for the NCJW members gathered in Washington, their own conference seemed to do the trick.

"Working for change at the grassroots level starts with being informed," said Hazel Groman, a national board member who lives in the District. "At this conference, we've had the privilege of hearing from people on the front lines of the issues. You can't leave a meeting like this without being incredibly enthusiastic about this organization and passionate about working on the issues we support."

© JTA Inc., 2001. May not be reproduced without written permission.

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