Pikuach Nefesh and the Jewish commitment to reproductive justice
Dr. David Gunn, a father of two, began practicing medicine as an OB/GYN and abortion provider in Brewton, Ala., fulfilling a deeply personal imperative to offer these services to patients in hostile environments. He later decided bravely to establish the Pensacola Women’s Medical Services clinic in Pensacola, Fla., despite knowing that this area was home to a hostile anti-abortion movement that intimidated abortion providers and patients.
While he was walking into his Pensacola clinic on March 10, 1993, a white supremacist, anti-abortion extremist opened fire, killing Dr. Gunn tragically. This marked the first known instance of the murder of an abortion provider in the United States, but devastatingly, not the last. Prior to this incident, Dr. Gunn faced consistent harassment, on par with the rising threats and attacks levied against abortion providers today. The National Abortion Federation’s 2020 statistics on violence and disruption found an alarming escalation in incidents of obstruction, vandalism, and trespassing at abortion clinics.
As we face concerted attacks on reproductive rights—via restrictive laws, outright bans and demonization of providers and patients—I believe strongly that we must elevate and recognize those who provide reproductive health care. As Dr. Gunn’s story makes all too clear, abortion providers navigate multifaceted attacks on their work, yet demonstrate remarkable resilience and continue to serve as an essential and valued part of their communities. Their sacrifice and dedication must be honored.
This week, I am partnering with colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to introduce a resolution honoring Abortion Provider Appreciation Day alongside Dr. Gunn’s surviving children, Catholics for Choice, National Council of Jewish Women and other national and local advocacy groups. This resolution affirms Congress’ commitment to ensuring the safety of abortion providers and their ability to continue providing the essential care their patients need. It also declares a vision for a future where access to abortion is liberated from restrictions and bans universally. We must never forget that this our foremost aspiration—a country where all individuals who want reproductive care can receive it.
When I arrived in Congress in 2019, I was eager to engage in the critical work of advancing the cause of reproductive justice with my colleagues. My fervent dedication to reproductive justice is informed by my lifelong dedication to human rights and the Jewish tradition of respecting individual dignity and bodily autonomy.
Pikuach nefesh, a central principle of Jewish life, emphasizes that the preservation of human life always overrides Halacha, Jewish law. I, along with many across disparate denominations in the Jewish community, embrace this facet of Jewish teaching to instruct us to protect the life of the patient and prioritize their health, well-being and safety. Judaism also emphasizes Kavod habriyot, the affirmation of human dignity, which guides us to uphold individual autonomy and the affirmation of each person’s unique needs. Through these teachings and the Jewish spirit of community and care, my faith deepens my commitment to support abortion providers and patients alike.
We must frame the ongoing attacks against reproductive freedom and abortion providers as a movement to entrench control—control over the bodies of those who seek reproductive health care, control over those who face racial and income barriers that stifle their ability to decide what is best for their own health, and control of the structures of power that are too often used to hinder progress and equality, like the Supreme Court. Further, being a part of the fight for reproductive justice also demands recognition that the movement to suppress reproductive freedom is borne from the same regressive politics of our national past. After all, it was a white supremacist who took Dr. Gunn’s life.
As the Court threatens to overturn or severely undermine Roe v. Wade, protecting and advancing reproductive freedom will require strong, resilient communities coming together to ensure that everyone can access the care that they need. Despite the challenges ahead, I am also deeply hopeful, because I’ve seen how good, justice-minded people have come together to uplift and protect each other. It is in this spirit that we must all support the abortion providers within our communities and fight for their ability to continue providing the essential care their patients need.
Congressman Andy Levin represents Michigan’s 9th District in Oakland and Macomb Counties. He is a former synagogue president and member of the Pro-Choice Caucus.