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November 7, 2016 by

I’m the Third Generation of My Family Working For Abortion Access. For Us, It’s About Tikkun Olam.


7:6 Mishna, Ohalot – ו

האשה שהיא מקשה לילד מחתכין את הולד במעיה ומוציאין אותו אברים אברים מפני שחייה קודמין לחייו יצא רובו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש


If a woman is dying from childbirth, we cut out the child from inside her – because her life comes before the child’s life. But once the majority of the baby is out, we don’t touch it, because we don’t push aside one life for the sake of another                                                

I come from a long line of radical Jews who embodied Tikkun Olam through reproductive justice. 

My grandfather Nachum “Nathan” Subotnik, whom I called ‘Papa Doc’, was a doctor who specialty was Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB-GYN). He was also the first person in his family to attend college. When he told his immigrant parents about his plans to attend medical school, they didn’t understand how that could be possible. They were resourceful subsistence farmers from Turkey and Lithuania with fifth-grade educations, and there were quotas that limited the number of Jewish students at universities in the 1930s. But my grandfather was not easily dissuaded. Nathan Subotnik was accepted into medical school in Scotland and later moved back to the United States to practice.

As an OB-GYN, my grandfather Subotnik was kind and non-judgmental. Many times, he lived in areas where he was the only doctor for miles, and he never turned away a patient, regardless of their circumstances, ethnicity, or income. He believed “to save a life” was the ultimate mitzvah. Papa Doc performed free tubal ligations to women in need of affordable family planning and delivered hundreds of babies in his community. Papa Doc offered house calls to his clients who were struggling to get by and those who couldn’t make it to his home office because of work and childcare obligations. After returning from these house calls, my grandmother would always ask him, “How much?” She meant, “How much money did you give them?” His work was tzedakah, and if nothing else, it is this legacy that he passed on to my mother and me. 

My mother, Deborah, was his helper—she organized charts and answered phone calls from her father’s home office. After completing nursing school, my mother provided health services in migrant communities through her work with Head Start. Deb, as she was known, was a real 1960s hippie who fought for reproductive rights despite constant threats of violence. She worked at the first legal abortion clinic in Louisiana after the historic Roe v. Wade case legalized the procedure—for those who could afford it. She worked with the LGBTQ community in New Orleans, discreetly sharing the clinic’s phone number on matchbooks in bars. My earliest memories include attending marches and rallies with my mother to support the rights of women, children, and the LGBTQ community.

And me? I’m carrying on the tradition of Tikkun Olam as the Southern Funds Coordinator for the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF). NNAF’s more than 70 member organizations work to remove financial and logistical barriers to abortion access. We want to ensure abortion access for people who face the greatest obstacles: low-income people, women of color, young women, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people, and amplify these voices. This is the center of our work.

The Jewish identity I inherited has always informed my values around community and social justice. As a founder and current resident of the Moishe House in Durham—one of 93 home-based, community hubs for young adult Jews—it makes sense that I’ve brought my reproductive justice values into my North Carolina Jewish community. In honor of the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and inspired by a discussion guide created by the National Council of Jewish Women, Moishe House Durham and the Carolina Abortion fund (an NNAF member organization) hosted an Abortion Access Shabbat and invited Jewish community members along with folks who worked across a range of reproductive justice issues. Together, we analyzed relevant Jewish texts (like the one quoted above), examining real and perceived barriers to abortion access in our state.

But despite being such a visible supporter of abortion, I have struggled to talk about my own abortion story publicly for fear of criticism about how I should have “known better.” I struggle also because my abortion story doesn’t fit the narrative that it was the “hardest decision” I’ve ever had to make. My participation in NNAF’s abortion storytelling leadership program, We Testify, is dedicated to widening the spectrum of abortion storytellers in the public sphere and shifting the way the media understands the context and complexity of accessing abortion care. This group of leaders has made space for me to tell my story and all of its nuances as a woman of color, as a first generation American, as a Southerner, and as a Jew: 

When I was in my early 20s, I was in a relationship with a very charismatic man. I was a visible feminist in my community, so when the relationship became abusive, I was afraid of how it would affect me personally and professionally if other people found out. And I was scared to call the police on a Black man in America. During the course of this relationship, I became pregnant and had an abortion. My mother sent me flowers. My best friend took me to the abortion clinic down the street and I was lucky enough to have insurance that covered the cost of my procedure. After the procedure, I caught up on reality TV and treated myself to lots of junk food. Even though I knew I wanted to get out of my relationship the moment I made the appointment with the clinic, it took me another five months to leave for good, because it’s rarely that easy to leave. As I grow and continue to reach new milestones, professionally and spiritually, I am eternally grateful to my abortion for the opportunity to choose how and when I want to start a family.

Although I had kept a journal about the relationship and the abortion, I bottled all of my emotions up. It wasn’t until a 2015 trip to the mikveh on the American Jewish University campus in Los Angeles that I shared my story with the mikveh attendant. It’s poetic that the space that offered me the most healing from the memory of the abusive relationship and the abortion I had within it, was mayim hayim, living water, a representation of the womb itself.

Over a year later, I’m still working to make abortion access a reality for everyone by opening more womb-like spaces for storytelling. Sometimes we create mayim hayim by telling our own stories, quiet or loud, but always brave. Sometimes we create mayim hayim by listening to the flow of another’s story. Sometimes we create a space for abortion access to happen by donating to an abortion fund, like theDr. Willie Parker Fund for abortion access in the South. And sometimes we find space in the silence of memories and in the strength of purpose given to us by those who came before us—my Papa Doc, my mother, and other faith leaders who have upheld abortion access as part of our moral existence.

Anise Simon, Southern Funds Coordinator at the National Network of Abortion Funds and a helpline volunteer with the Carolina Abortion Fund. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.