October 18, 2018

Diversity in Pro-Life Movement is Richer Than Ever

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Two days after the Jan. 22, 1973, Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court, the editorial page of The New York Times — pro-abortion then, even more pro-abortion now — announced the 7-2 decision “could bring to an end the emotional and divisive public argument” and “will end the argument if those who are now inveighing against the decision as a threat to civilization’s survival will pause long enough to recognize the limits of what the Court has done.”

That gross misstatement established the template that still exists in large measure: Pretend that Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision hadn’t gutted the abortion laws of all 50 states, some very protective, others virtually allowing abortion on-demand well into the second trimester. And because the abortion regime established nearly 45 years ago was — and is — so wildly out of sync with public opinion, its foundations remain inherently unstable.

The irony is that even “pro-choice” scholars knew how slipshod Blackmun’s opinion was. In 2005, for example, Benjamin Wittes wrote, “In the years since the decision an enormous body of academic literature has tried to put the right to an abortion on firmer legal ground. But thousands of pages of scholarship notwithstanding, the right to abortion remains constitutionally shaky. … [Roe] is a lousy opinion that disenfranchised millions of conservatives on an issue about which they care deeply.”

Irony Number 2: In its earliest years the pro-life movement was filled with liberal Democrats. A commitment to protecting the vulnerable and the powerless was the reason I once was up to my elbows in Democratic Party politics. Alas, when adherence to abortion on-demand became a litmus test, virtually all liberal Democrats chose party over principle.

But the movement’s diversity is richer than ever — everything from nonsectarian organizations such as the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) to Feminists for Life to Secular Pro-Life. That is the genius of the pro-life cause: You can oppose killing unborn babies — including those capable of experiencing horrific pain as they are torn limb from limb — for a host of reasons. Pigeonholing the pro-life movement as “right-wing” or Christian-only will never end; it will just be even more foolish.

In its earliest years the pro-life movement was filled with liberal Democrats.

Science and technology, and even television commercials, have made the job of persuasion infinitely easier. When my wife was pregnant, I had to pretend I could make out what I saw on the ultrasound. Nowadays, like hundreds of millions of grandparents, when we went to the obstetrician, we could see our grandkids in four-color “real time,” meaning you could see them running all over the place. The facial features were distinct, not blurs, and no one had to help me figure out (literally) heads from tails.

The debate in the 1990s over partial-birth abortions changed the trajectory of the abortion debate. Pro-lifers are convinced the oncoming debate over banning the abortions of pain-capable children will have no less an impact. There already is overwhelming public support for just such a law.

NRLC believes this will help reveal a truth buried for decades: A majority of Americans oppose — and always have — the reasons 90-95 percent of all abortions are performed.

All this support when the mainstream media is so hostile to our cause that they didn’t have to even feign indifference to the trial of an abortionist convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for aborting late-term babies alive and then murdering them by slicing their spinal cords. Where would public opinion be if people understood that West Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell is no outlier? That he is the real face of the abortion industry that fights any and all attempts to have their facilities inspected without prior notice? (Wonder why?)

Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer Paul Greenberg once wrote, “The right to life must come first or all the others can never take root, much less flourish. As in the Declaration of Independence’s order of certain unalienable rights, among them ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Note which one is mentioned first. And for good, logical reason.”

The movement toward life and away from death is inexorable. Remember that the next time someone pretends it is pro-lifers who are the outliers.

For the other side of the debate, read Sandra Fluke’s column here

Dave Andrusko is the editor of National Right to Life News and National Right to Life News Today.

Rally calls for protection of abortion rights

Hundreds rallied near the intersection of Fairfax and Melrose avenues on Jan. 19 to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion.

Hosted by the National Council of Jewish Women in Los Angeles, the rally drew about 500 people, who converged outside the council’s office to defend women’s reproductive rights.

Cheers and chants of “Save Roe” and “We won’t go back” rippled through the crowd as demonstrators gathered around a makeshift stage. Several protesters held wire hangers and signs with slogans, including “My body, my choice,” “Keep abortion safe and legal” and “We will protect each other.”

“We need to throw a monkey wrench into everything that we don’t like that’s coming out of Washington,” L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told the rally. “We are going to do a Planned Parenthood defense and we are going to do an immigrant defense.”

The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision ruled that it is a woman’s right to have an abortion within the first trimester of pregnancy.

According to a 2016 Pew Research study, about 57 percent of Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 39 percent oppose abortion.

Further, the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based research and policy organization, has found:

• 1 in 3 American women will undergo an abortion by the time she is 45 years old.

• About 45 percent of all pregnancies in the United States in 2011 were unintended, and nearly 4 in 10 pregnancies were aborted.

• In 2014, more than 920,000 abortions were performed across the country, a 12 percent decrease from 1.06 million in 2011.

The majority of women who underwent abortion in 2014 were in their 20s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 75 percent of women who had an abortion in 2014 were low-income and lived below the poverty line, according to the CDC.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, the reason the number of abortions has declined is the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which requires insurance companies to cover various contraceptive procedures. Now, some fear that President Donald Trump’s actions will deprive women of access to affordable contraception and safe abortions.

“Abortion rights are critical,” said Sarah Bradshaw, an activist with Texas-based Feminist Majority Foundation, who was part of the L.A. rally. “There are women lying in graves today because they didn’t have an access to legal abortion. We refuse to go back because we know what it means for women.”

Treasure Cary, a student at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, said she joined the rally to remind herself and other young women that they shouldn’t take their freedom of choice for granted.

“If you don’t do anything, they will take your freedom away from you,” the 18-year-old said. “Everyone has the right to make their own choices.”

She said many pro-life politicians and activists have little respect for women and children.

“Some people say they are pro-life, but they don’t care about women’s lives,” Cary said. “They don’t care about children’s lives. There are many kids in foster care and nobody wants to adopt them.”

Holding a “Love trumps hate” sign, Nikki Bayat, 15, a student at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood, said she wanted to let the new president know that people care about women’s issues.

“I’m offering what I can to people and trying to be supportive,” she said. “I want to make sure that our basic rights are not taken away.”

Liza Zipursky, a 29-year-old resident of the Pico-Fairfax neighborhood, said she wants women to continue fighting for their rights.

“I want women to be able to have a choice,” Zipursky said. “With Trump in the White House, it’s getting scary, and I hope people won’t get discouraged.”

Brandon Johnson, a TV writer, said he joined the protest because he wanted to support women.

“Real men stand up for women,” he said. “It’s the least I can do to give back to women who helped me.”

Princess Damalgi, 19, a student from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, said she wanted to rally with other women because she was passionate about human rights.

“I want to educate our younger generation,” she said. “If we all stand together, we can win. Trump is not my president, and all he speaks is hate, but we are not going to live in fear.”

‘Rally to save Roe’ is an important first step

On the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump and the 44th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles and the California Latinas for Reproductive Justice are co-hosting a “Rally to Save Roe,” a protest and young activist training intended to defend women’s reproductive rights in California. The rally will send a bold message to Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress that a broad coalition of women—including women of color and women of faith—are ready to protect and advance women’s access to reproductive health care during the next four years.

Given the level of vitriol and coordinated attacks on reproductive health care of young women already being waged by anti-choice politicians across the country, making space for young activists to fight back is more important than ever.

The rally, which will disrupt business as usual on Fairfax avenue[KM1] , will demonstrate women’s commitment to upholding the right to abortion  established 44 years ago in the historic 1973 supreme court case, Roe v. Wade. Amidst a political climate in which the President-Elect has pledged to overturn Roe, defending our basic Constitutional rights has become crucial.

But the election of Donald Trump is not the only thing the pro-choice movement has to worry about. Over the past five years, politicians who want to ban abortion outright have quietly passed hundreds—338 to be precise—of new restrictions that force women to delay care, shut down clinics, and even make doctors lie to their patients. All these restrictions have a disproportionate impact on young women’s ability to make [KM2] decisions about their own bodies.   

The intensity with which politicians have pursued legislation to restrict almost every facet of women’s health care has been devastating to abortion access in this country. One thing out of touch politicians [KM3] have failed to account for, however, is that their onslaught of attacks have awoken and politicized a new group of young activists.

Restricting women’s health care is an unpopular policy position to take. It affects the day to day lives of women, including young women, everywhere. And as they will soon find out, women who’ve been denied their basic rights and personal decisions have power, and we’ll use that power to make change happen.  

Like my fellow millennial women, I came of age during a time when it felt like all of the progress of our feminist foremothers was being rolled back. We watched as politicians used every trick in the book to deny us meaningful access to our right to an abortion, a right we’d been told was protected by the Constitution. We watched as politicians slut-shamed women using birth control, used racist rhetoric to shame women of color for having children and attacked Planned Parenthood, a health clinic that provides body-positive, inclusive health care to many low-income young women across the country.

Before the President-Elect has even taken office, the Republican-controlled Senate voted (again) to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which expanded access to Medicare and, crucially for young women, ensured they could remain on their parents’ health care until age 26.

These attacks have had material effects on all women, but have hurt young women, working class women, and women of color most. As a young, underemployed college graduate, I am worried about my own access to basic reproductive healthcare if Trump and Paul Ryan’s anti-woman Congress have their way.

To successfully fight back against the draconian policies being pursued by those in power, it’s important to galvanize the energy and rage of those, like me, who will be most affected. That’s why it’s so important that the Rally to Save Roe” is more than just a demonstration—it’s a training to equip the new generation of activists with the tools they need to resist Trump’s agenda to shame and punish women who need abortion care.

By welcoming young women—including young Latinas and young Jewish women—these organizations will help to build a powerful cadre of Californians who can lead the movement to defend our rights and health care.

Maybe more importantly, by listening to the diverse voices of young women from a variety of backgrounds, established movement leaders will learn what brings us to activism, and how we envision the future of the pro-choice movement, a future that is all the more precarious in the face of unrepentant misogynist Donald Trump.

The activist training following the “Rally to Save Roe” is just the first step in elevating the voices of young women. If you’re a millennial and you’re sick of politicians interfering with your decisions, make your voice heard. Speak out on social media, start conversations with friends and family members about how laws passed by politicians in Washington affect you personally, contact your local, state, and federal legislators, and don’t forget to vote in every election.

Trump wants to take us backward, but young women are fighting back. We want our country to continue moving forward, and we won’t let men in Congress or the White House stop us.

Carley Towne is a native Southern Californian and young feminist activist.

On Roe v. Wade anniversary, fresh threats to abortion access demand action

Forty-three years ago this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade protecting a woman’s right to abortion. Since the 2010 elections, a wave of state laws has aimed at restricting that right, closing clinics and harassing medical providers.

No less than 288 new laws have been passed across the country to make abortion access ever more difficult. They come with punitive regulations on clinics, impediments to those seeking abortions and nonsensical requirements on providers.

Despite strong public support for keeping abortion safe and legal, it seems there is always a politician ready and willing to say that an exception for rape or incest is still going too far.

A 2013 Texas law headed for the Supreme Court is a prime example of the extremes to which the campaign has gone. The measure falls into the category known as TRAP laws — targeted regulation of abortion providers — that increase arbitrary, punitive regulation of abortion care, providers and clinics.

The Texas law mandates that abortion clinics meet the same building, equipment and staffing standards as ambulatory surgical centers. It further requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the clinic. If upheld, the law would wipe out 30 clinics across the state, leaving only 10, all concentrated in four metro areas.

Such laws do nothing to protect women’s health. They are intended only to restrict access.

The Texas case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, is the first major abortion case since Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the 1992 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that states can impose restrictions on abortion access as long as they do not impose an “undue burden” on the pregnant woman. But “undue burden” has been ill-defined.

The court could use the Texas case to take a drastic step backward from Casey, which already retreats from the promise of Roe. Or the court could even revisit Roe itself, since five of the justices have been hostile to Roe since before they joined the court.

Advocating for reproductive justice is one of the key initiatives of the National Council of Jewish Women. Bans on abortion coverage go against our values and the freedoms we cherish as American Jews, specifically the right to make family planning health care decisions based on an individual’s personal ethical and religious beliefs, regardless of income, type of health insurance or any other factor.

That’s why together with our coalition partners, we are supporting two bills in Congress that would seize the initiative by lifting federal bans that deny abortion coverage to those who get their health insurance through federal programs and by barring states from singling out abortion care and its providers for special regulation.

Introduced last summer, the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act, or EACH Woman Act, would repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal health dollars, except in certain cases, from being used to fund abortions. The law would correct the injustice that makes access to abortion largely a function of access to money, which is itself linked to entrenched barriers including systemic racial inequality. Women of color, young people and immigrant women struggle the most to make ends meet and are most harmed by bans that deny abortion coverage to women enrolled in a federal health program.

The second bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, addresses the dangerous phenomenon of TRAP laws and similar access barriers by banning regulations that place more burdensome requirements on abortion providers and patients than those imposed on similar medical procedures. These policies do not significantly advance women’s health or safety, and make abortion more difficult to access.

In real terms, this means prohibiting policies that mandate arbitrary, medically unnecessary procedures such as ultrasounds or extra doctor’s visits, as well as those that ban medication abortion or are intended to close clinics. As with federal bans on coverage, TRAP restrictions fall hardest on low-wage women, women of color, immigrant women and women living in rural areas who already face health care access barriers.

Those who care about safeguarding women’s health and believe in our right to make personal decisions without political interference can help build momentum in support of these critical measures by educating others and urging Congress to act.

For decades, abortion opponents have cited religious faith as the grounds for restrictions that deny women the ability to make decisions surrounding pregnancy. These laws would help restore moral agency to every woman and ensure that no matter her income or insurance status, she can make reproductive health care decisions according to her own faith or values.

The legacy of Roe, summarized in the majority opinion of Justice Harry Blackmun, was to resolve the debate around abortion access “by constitutional measurement, free of emotion and of predilection.” To make those decisions, a woman must have unfettered, affordable access to the care she needs.

Policymakers ought not put a hand on the scale that has the effect — indeed, the intention — of depriving any woman of her ability to make that constitutionally guaranteed decision for herself.

Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to advance social and economic justice for women, children and families.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz under fire for calling young women complacent on abortion

Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is facing criticism from liberal activists for suggesting that young women are complacent about their abortion rights.

“Here’s what I see: a complacency among the generation of young women whose entire lives have been lived after Roe v. Wade was decided,” Wasserman Schultz told The New York Times Magazine in an interview published Wednesday.

Roe v. Wade is the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark decision that established the right to an abortion.

At least three major progressive activist groups, including MoveOn.orgRootsAction and CREDO Action, have seized on the issue to launch petitions urging her to resign her post as chair of the DNC.

Photo is screenshot from Twitter

The abortion rights group Reproaction encouraged its supporters to criticize her on Twitter with the hashtag #DearDebbie.

Wasserman Schultz responded to the controversy in a statement Wednesday.

“We need women of every generation — mine included — to stand up and speak out, and that is the main message I sought to convey in that interview,” she wrote.

Some Sanders supporters have criticized Wasserman Schultz in recent months for favoring Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. There have been fewer Democratic primary debates than Republican debates and some have been scheduled at low-TV-viewership times, giving Sanders fewer high-profile opportunities to challenge Clinton.

Last month, the DNC temporarily cut the Sanders campaign off from the party’s important voter data files after a staffer peeked at Clinton’s data during a software glitch — leading to a public spat between the campaign and the party leadership.

Asked about the petitions calling for Wasserman Schultz’s resignation, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she still has confidence in the DNC chairwoman, ABC News reported.

‘Stories from the Frontline’ commemorating Roe v. Wade

“My first abortion was in 1966,” began Tony Award-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell in front of a packed house at a National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles (NCJW/LA) event Jan. 22 commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

Caldwell was performing someone else’s story, the heart-wrenching narrative of a woman who got a black-market abortion in Los Angeles without anesthetic.

The evening at NCJW/LA on Fairfax Avenue, dubbed “Stories From the Frontline,” was filled with narratives about women. Some involved a speaker’s college dorm mate, an abuelita (grandmother) or a deeply personal confession. With theater lights dimmed, the intimate ambience recalled that of “The Vagina Monologues,” a production by Eve Ensler. 

Other actors invited to convey these stories included Amy Brenneman, Michael Cory Davis, Damon Gupton and Elizabeth Triplett. Pro-choice activist Lenzi Sheible, president and founder of Fund Texas Choice, a nonprofit that pays travel expenses for low-income Texans seeking abortions, participated as well. 

Around 250 people attended the event, including pro-choice activists sporting pins with slogans such as “Abortion on demand and without apology” and “It’s the Supreme Court, stupid!”  

“It’s great to see a room that’s filled wall to wall with people,” marveled Ruth Zeitzew, NCJW/LA’s vice president, as she introduced the night’s emcee, human-rights advocate Rosalind Helfand, at the start of the evening.

Before the storytelling portion began, Joyce Schorr, founder of Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, and social justice attorney Sandra Fluke spoke about the landmark Supreme Court case that legalized abortion and the legislation that has since tried to chip away at it. The 1973 decision, which was brought on behalf of Norma McCorvy (“Jane Roe”), is still treading water and struggling to prove itself, as some continue to wage war on the issue and on women’s basic human rights in general, according to Schorr. 

“Unfortunately, we’re losing that war,” she said. 

Schorr shared the experience that ignited her activism on the issue. It happened when her college roommate started hemorrhaging after undergoing an illegal abortion in 1969. Luckily, their friend’s father was a doctor — going to the hospital was out of the question in their minds — and his house call ultimately “saved her life — but not so many woman wound up like she did,” Schorr said.

Fluke gave a rundown on current legislation dealing with reproductive rights and prefaced it with, “I wish, like President [Barack] Obama, I could tell you that our union is strong, and I wish I could give you all the opportunity to rise and clap after every sentence during my State of the Union because I can tell you’re that kind of crowd. But, unfortunately, that is not what I can say to you this evening.”

She went on to discuss a Republican-sponsored bill that would have banned all abortions taking place after 20 weeks, save for a few narrow exceptions, such as victims of sexual assault who reported their attack. Two female GOP leaders ended up withdrawing their co-sponsorship of the proposed legislation because of the limitations in the exception clause, and the White House released a Jan. 20 statement calling the bill “an assault on a woman’s right to choose.” The very next day, Republicans scrapped the bill and turned their attention to the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2015, which bans the use of federal money for abortions or for insurance plans that cover abortions.

The weekend of Jan. 23-25 saw numerous “March for Life” demonstrations across the nation — about 50,000 pro-life activists marched Jan. 24 in San Francisco — but, for one night, the issue was focused on the stories of individuals and the freedom to choose.

Gupton (“The Divide,” “Whiplash”) told the narrative of a grandchild recounting what happened to his abuelita, who endured two alleyway abortion procedures that included a bottle of Clorox and a metal hanger. Triplett, of Hulu’s “Battleground” series, told the story of a 16-year-old girl who was too young to buy the Plan B morning-after pill, ending on a note of suspense after the pharmacist handed the teen a pregnancy test. And Sheible told her own story about getting a Cuban client to Albuquerque, N.M., safely for an abortion. 

Brenneman (“Judging Amy”) responded to Sheible’s story by saying, “I feel like I’m sitting next to Harriet Tubman.” She then went on to read the narrative of Jennifer Whalen, a mother who served a criminal sentence after ordering mifepristone pills online for her underage daughter without a doctor’s prescription in order to induce a miscarriage.

The final speaker of the night, Maya Paley, NCJW/LA’s director of legislative and community engagement, took the stage and opted, instead of reading her prewritten speech, to speak candidly to the audience. 

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this is my story,” Paley said. She went on to tell her experience about finding out she was pregnant while working as a human-rights researcher in Israel and eventually deciding to return to the United States to undergo an abortion. (Before leaving Israel, however, she had a miscarriage, she said). It’s a story, she announced, her mom hadn’t heard yet — “and she’s in the room.” 

“I want to get to a point and say, ‘Raise your hand if you’ve had an abortion,’ and it’s OK for people to raise their hands,” Paley said. 

And, at that moment, a sea of hands went up.

Prenatal whole genome sequencing technology raises Jewish ethical questions

Expectant mothers long have faced the choice of finding out the gender of their child while still in the womb.

But what if parents could get a list of all the genes and chromosomes of their unborn children, forecasting everything from possible autism and future genetic diseases to intelligence level and eye color?

The technology to do just that — prenatal whole genome sequencing, which can detect all 20,000 to 25,000 genes in the genome from fetal blood present in the mother’s bloodstream — is already in laboratories. While not yet available in clinical settings because of the cost, once the price falls below $1,000 it is likely to become common, according to a report by the Hastings Center, a nonpartisan bioethics research institute.

With it will come a host of Jewish ethical dilemmas.

“We need a serious set of conversations about the implications of this new technology,” said Peter Knobel, a Reform rabbi who teaches bioethics at the Spertus Center in Chicago and is the senior rabbi at the city’s Temple Sholom.

How will parents react to a pregnancy destined to produce a child with an unwanted condition? What do parents do when genetic sequencing shows a predisposition for a deadly disease but not a certainty of it? What about diseases not curable now but which may be cured by the time the child reaches adulthood? When, if ever, is the right time to tell a child he or she has a genetic predisposition toward a particular disease?

It likely will be the most contentious social issue of the next decade, predicts Arthur Caplan, director of the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

”Anyone who thinks that information that could lead to abortion isn’t going to be controversial has been asleep since Roe v. Wade,” Caplan said.

According to Orthodox Judaism's interpretations of Jewish law, abortion is permissible only when the mother’s health is at risk. The Conservative movement agrees, but its position includes other exceptions.

“Our real concern will be massive increases in the number of abortions,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, professor of bioethics at Yeshiva University. “You have a young couple, 22, 23, 24 years old, and they don’t plan to have more than two or three children. Why take a defective child? I call it the perfect baby syndrome. The perfect baby does not exist.”

Rabbi Avram Reisner, a bioethicist on the Conservative movement’s Committee of Law and Standards, says abortion by whim is clearly prohibited.

“Judaism is not pro-life,” said Reisner, the spiritual leader at Congregation Chevrei Tzedek in Baltimore. “Jewish law allows abortion. And it is not pro-choice. It is concerned with managing the health of the mother. It does not support abortion as a parental whim.”

The Reform movement, though adamantly pro-choice, has a similar position.

“Abortion should not take place for anything other than a serious reason,” said Knobel of the Spertus Institute, “hopefully in consultation with a religious or ethical adviser.”

As far as Jewish ethics are concerned, prenatal whole genome sequencing has some elements in common with current genetic testing.

Embryos of Ashkenazi Jews routinely are tested for such diseases as Tay-Sachs and the breast cancer genes BRCA — two illnesses disproportionately common among Ashkenazim.

In haredi Orthodox communities where arranged marriages are common, matchmakers routinely consult databases that hold genetic information anonymously to see whether a match would face a genetic obstacle. That practice, and genetic testing during pregnancy, has practically eliminated Tay-Sachs disease in the American Ashkenazi community, according to Michael Broyde, professor at the Emory University law school and a member of the Beth Din of America, an Orthodox rabbinical court.

The difference between prenatal sequencing and current genetic testing is the amount of information and its usefulness. Current tests look for specific genetic disorders. Prenatal sequencing is a fishing expedition, looking at everything.

At present, the information is of limited use. No one knows what 90 percent of genes do, and it usually takes more than one gene to do anything. Furthermore, genes are not destiny: Just because one has the genes for certain diseases, such as coronary heart disease, does not mean one will get it.

“All genetic stuff is probabilistic,” Caplan said.

Some say that raises the question of whether Jews should be undergoing genome sequencing at all.

“Just because you can get the whole genome, why do that?” asked Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chairman of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards. “How much do you want to find out and how much do you want to share with the couple, and later with the child? Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

The operative question, he notes, is whether it will cure or detect a serious disease.

“With all questions of this type, the law doesn’t ask how something is being done; it asks what we are accomplishing,” Broyde said. “If sequencing makes people healthier, it’s a good thing. If it’s going to make people ill, it’s sinning.”

Knobel says, “We need what I call an ethics of anticipation. We need a serious set of conversations about the implications of using the new technology, about how we can understand the values and ethics and come to grips with what it means in the long term.”

‘The American Bible’: …With liberty, justice and religion for all

The biblical reference in the title of Stephen Prothero’s “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation” (HarperOne: $29.99) is purely metaphorical. Although Prothero is a professor of religion and the best-selling author of “Religious Literacy” and “God Is Not One,” his new book is an anthology of writings and other works of authorship that amount to a mostly secular American canon, ranging from the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to “The Gettysburg Address” and “Civil Disobedience” to the Supreme Court decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.

To be sure, Prothero characterizes his collection as a spiritual enterprise.  The various entries are categorized under scriptural headings, ranging from “Genesis” and “Chronicles” to “Gospels,” “Acts” and “Epistles.”  But only a few of the writers whose texts are singled out were themselves clergy, and there are actually more songwriters — Francis Scott Key (“The Star-Spangled Banner”), Irving Berlin (“God Bless America”) and Woody Guthrie (“This Land Is Your Land”) — than men of the cloth; in fact, only two clergymen, Martin Luther King Jr. (“I Have a Dream”) and Malcolm X (“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”), are listed as authors of the principal texts, although many of the commentaries originate with ministers and preachers.

Prothero insists that American culture and identity can be understood as “a religion of sorts,” but he is just as insistent that there is no such thing as an American creed. “Our republic of letters is a republic of conversation constituted, divided, reconstituted, and maintained by debate over the meaning of ‘America’ and ‘Americans,’ ” he writes. “Americans agree to a surprising degree about which symbols and ideas are central to our national life, but we disagree profoundly about what these symbols and ideas mean and how they ought to be translated into public policies.”

Indeed, Prothero explains his book as “an effort to construct an American Talmud,” that is, a core text that can only be understood through the commentaries that are built upon it. “My chief criterion,” he explains, “has been the ability of a given text to generate controversy and conversation.” The principal of selection explains why a single sentence (John F. Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you …”) and even a single phrase (Ronald Reagan’s reference to the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”) are included in the canon. 

More typically, however, Prothero gives us a generous excerpt from a core text and then provides various passages that reflect the text in one way or another. For example, he opens the book with the Exodus story as it appears in the Bible, but only as a starting point for a selection of writings that echo the biblical text — the slave spiritual “Go Down, Moses,” a note from Benjamin Franklin that was found among the papers of Thomas Jefferson and a 19th century writer who compared the Mormon leadership to Muhammad and Moses. All of the short commentaries, according to Prothero, show how the liberation of the Israelite slaves from Egypt can be seen as “the American story — the narrative Americans tell themselves to make sense of their history, identity, and destiny.”

Some entries are eccentric but also highly imaginative. One of the core documents in the collection is “The Blue Back Speller” of Noah Webster, a famously secular reference work first published in 1783 by a man whom Prothero characterizes as one of America’s uncredited Founding Fathers. “Nothing has a greater tendency to lessen the reverence which mankind ought to have for the Supreme Being,” explained Webster, “than a careless repetition of his name upon every trifling occasion.” Significantly, both Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and Booker T. Washington, a former slave, are among the writers whose praises for “The Blue Back Speller” are included in “The American Bible.”

Very few texts by women are included in the collection, a fact that Prothero readily acknowledges and explains: “For better or worse,” he writes, “dead white men have had outsized influence over the course of U.S. history.” And when he does include a work whose author was female, his choices are a bit of a stretch. Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is one: “There is no more polarizing novel in American literature,” he concedes, and it’s significant that we are not offered an opportunity to read an excerpt from the book because, as Prothero points out, permission to do so was denied by the Estate of Ayn Rand — a fact that is a commentary in itself.

Another work by a woman is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., the only contribution in the collection that is not, strictly speaking, a text. The excerpt, such as it is, consists of some of the names inscribed on the stone surfaces of the monument: “Dale R Buis, Chester M Ovnard, Maurice W Flournoy” and so on.  Among the commentaries is one provided by Maya Lin, the architect who designed the memorial: “[T]his memorial is not meant as a monument to the individual,” she explains, “but rather as a memorial to the men and women who died during this war, as a whole.” Only a few of the other commentators acknowledge the fact that Lin’s work is a powerful anti-war statement, but Bill Clinton is among them: “Let us continue to disagree, if we must, about the war,” he said. “But let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.”

Although “The American Bible” reaches back to the beginnings of our democracy, Prothero is mindful of the noisy media environment in which we actually live today. “[I]t is difficult to enter into the rough and tumble of contemporary American policies and exit with one’s hope (or one’s dignity) intact,” he observes. But he encourages his readers to use his collection as a book of maps that will guide readers back to the original texts: “Why allow John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi to dominate your book group,” he suggests, “when Jefferson, Lincoln and King are in the room?”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at books@jewishjournal.com.