Social Justice

The Big Jewcy: Steph Herold – Reproductive Rights Activist

“I have the privilege of not having to wrestle each day with dissonance between my faith and the cause that drives my life.” Read More

By / June 9, 2011
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Steph Herold, the founder of IAmDrTiller.com, needs little introduction, especially since we’ve profiled her before.  Still, I had a few things I wanted to ask the web’s most vocal (and sensible!) reproductive rights activist:

As a Jewish reproductive rights activist, do you take comfort in Judaism’s relatively reasonable stance toward abortion?  The Mishnah clearly states that a woman’s life is prioritized over a fetus, and even an Orthodox person would tell you that abortion is considered mandatory if it means saving the mother.  A rabbinic dispensation for an abortion is easily acquired if the situation qualifies as Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life) and the law can be interpreted to include mental anguish as well as physical.  All of this makes Judaism fairly progressive when it comes to the issue of abortion.

To be completely honest, I don’t think about Judaism and abortion very often, and I know that’s a luxury. I have the privilege of not having to wrestle each day with dissonance between my faith and the cause that drives my life. This doesn’t let Judaism off the hook, though. In Israel, to my understanding, if you can’t afford to pay for an abortion with your own money, you have to go before a “termination committee” who has to approve your reasons for having an abortion. It is lucky that women have the option of getting public funding for their procedures (and the termination committee rarely turns someone down), but to have to go in front of a committee and have your reason for an abortion approved is humiliating at best. Wealthy women can bypass this system if they have enough money to pay for an abortion at a private clinic, leaving low income women at the mercy of strangers on a committee. While better than many countries, it’s not progressive by any stretch.

The right’s renewed (and seemingly unending) interest in defunding Planned Parenthood is a constant reminder that the entire organization is misunderstood — that opponents are blind to the other services that PP provides to people in need of good, affordable health care.  Clearly, they need some setting straight.  If you could say one thing to the right (that they would really listen to) about Planned Parenthood, what would it be?

Whether you know it or not, Planned Parenthood has likely provided health care for your sister, mother, daughter, wife, friend, neighbor or co-worker. Political posturing impacts real lives. Taking away funding for comprehensive reproductive health care, including abortion, is a public health disaster. We need to protect Title X funding to maintain access to basic family planning services for low income and uninsured people, but we also need to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion.

You are best known for I Am Dr. Tiller, a living memorial to the late George Tiller, a doctor that provided health care services to women in Wichita.  How did that site come into being?

I was working at an abortion clinic when Dr. George Tiller was murdered. I had worked with him before, not closely, but sent patients to his clinic knowing they would received compassionate and respectful care. The news of his assassination was devastating to me, as it was to the whole abortion provider community. We had a staff meeting at the clinic to discuss how we felt about his death and of course, our safety going forward, What came out of that meeting was the sense that while we do everything we can to make sure our patients feel safe telling their abortion stories, abortion providers don’t have a place to share their experiences. I decided to take on this project and set up the site over the next day or two. It was and continues to be an incredible experience, collecting and sharing the stories of abortion providers from around the world.

You’ve used social media (specifically Twitter) with great results to promote your cause.  But the ease with which misinformation can be accessed is also a result of the social media revolution — is it possible to combat the huge influx of anti-choice voices that are dominating much of the web’s discourse on reproductive rights?  It feels sometimes that the pro-life movement is just so much larger and louder….

Social media by itself can’t fight misinformation, particularly because the misinformation isn’t just on Twitter and Facebook, but also on subway ads, billboards, blogs, websites, state legislatures, and shouted at women in front of clinics. Social media is one piece of a larger strategy, and activists must engage in the reproductive health, rights, and justice movements not just by blogging and on Twitter, but on the streets, in clinics, on cable news, in Congress. If the anti-choice movement wants to focus all their energy on spreading lies online, fine. Don’t be discouraged. We’ll keep kicking ass in that space and everywhere else.