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3 women say Kentucky’s abortion laws are at odds with their Jewish faith in lawsuit

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Religious freedom has been invoked in legal cases involving insurance coverage of birth control and in challenges to same-sex marriage. In several states, Jewish women are citing it to argue against abortion bans. Here's Kentucky Public Radio's Sylvia Goodman in Louisville.

SYLVIA GOODMAN, BYLINE: Lisa Sobel is already the mom of one kid, a child she was only able to have after two rounds of in vitro fertilization treatments. When trying for another child, doctors told her she had a 93% chance that one of the four fertilized eggs retrieved would be viable. None were.

LISA SOBEL: If I were to go down the road right now to having another retrieval, I have a very high likelihood of creating more non-viable embryos.

GOODMAN: Because Kentucky has several abortion laws, including a near-total ban, Sobel says it's unclear whether she could be forced to carry those non-viable embryos created through her needed fertility treatments. At least some parts of Kentucky's statute define fertilization as the beginning of human life. It's a definition Sobel says is at odds with her Jewish faith.

SOBEL: As much as I'd like to go forward and try and have more children, I can't in good conscience because there's too much risk to my life and to what I may or may not be charged with.

GOODMAN: The Kentucky's women's suit, which they filed more than a year and a half ago, was part of a wave of lawsuits using a religious freedom argument against abortion restrictions. Several of those cases are still wending their way through state courts in places like Indiana, Missouri, Florida. All three women in Kentucky's case are Jewish, and according to them, Kentucky's ban endangers not only their health, but their ability to practice their religion. And Sobel and the other two women are left waiting.

SOBEL: My life is on hold. And I can't do anything.

GOODMAN: Kentucky's laws are so vague, so unintelligible, says one of the women's lawyers, they don't even know whether they're allowed to get certain fertilization treatments, especially ones that require clinics to discard embryos. Lawyer Ben Potash says that uncertainty is causing real harm.

BEN POTASH: All of them do want to grow their families. That's sincere. They didn't make this up. And until they get a clear answer from the courts, they're not able to grow their families.

GOODMAN: In court, the state's lawyers argued that they interpret the law to allow IVF and destruction of embryos in private clinics. But it's a point lawmakers themselves disagree on. They haven't passed any explicit protections. Sharon Hordes is a cantor at a Louisville synagogue and a board member of the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

SHARON HORDES: According to the Talmud, life begins at birth, not at conception.

GOODMAN: She says far-right religious groups have tried to define what religiosity means for everyone when it comes to abortion policy. She says that because Jewish interpretations have long differed, it feels like the state legislature is favoring one religious dogma over another.

HORDES: I'm going to use the Yiddish term chutzpah (laughter) to say that your way of looking at the world through your religious lens is going to be for everybody, and it actually tramples on our religious rights.

GOODMAN: In court, the state's attorney said religious beliefs can play a role in legislation, and the state constitution allows some level of religious references in state statutes. Courts and other states have come to wildly different conclusions on these arguments. Indiana courts have said the states abortion ban likely does run afoul of religious freedom, although they didn't immediately strike down the ban. In Missouri, a judge found that the concept of life beginning at conception is not inherently religious. Meanwhile, Sobel says the last two years have been difficult, waiting for a decision in Kentucky. She feels like she's been in limbo.

SOBEL: And I knew that going in to pursuing this that there was a high likelihood that we would not have a decision before I run out of time. I already had few eggs to begin with.

GOODMAN: The plaintiffs are asking the courts to strike down the abortion laws and send lawmakers back to determine new rules. For NPR News, I'm Sylvia Goodman in Louisville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sylvia Goodman