With the army providing free abortions for female soldiers, and social workers actively promoting abortion as a cure-all for emotional and economic woes, abortion in Israel is a widely accepted practice.

But that may change with new restrictive legislation before the Israeli Knesset. Although the official Israeli abortion rate is about one-half the United States rate, Jewish traditionalists, some calling abortion "the second Holocaust," abhor it. Yet, pro-life and abortion-rights rallies, long a staple of American news, are conspicuously absent here.

Earlier this year, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party grabbed headlines with a strongly worded pro-life bill. The bill, now in committee, defines an embryo as a human being from the day of conception, and inserts this definition into Israel's criminal code. If passed into law, the Shas bill would allow abortion practitioners to be tried for first-degree murder.

Although few Israeli political analysts expect the bill to pass in its current form, the bill has functioned to reopen the debate over abortion rights. Under pressure from the Women's Network political lobby, 19 of the bill's original 51 signatories withdrew their support. And Israeli evangelicals are divided over the measure, with some fearing that it will generate a backlash against the nascent pro-life movement. That sentiment echoes even within the ranks of Shas.

Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben-Izri, who is Israel's deputy minister of health, supports the measure, but he is skeptical. "I don't believe for a minute that we can pass such a law in this country," he says. "Two-thirds of the abortions done in Israel are already illegal, and we cannot convince the government to enforce the existing law."


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