Friday, May 17, 2019

Judaism and the Abortion Debate


          With so many states having recently passed or considering legislation which purports to eliminate or severely restrict abortion, I want to take a look at what Judaism says about this issue.

            Before I do that, I want to talk about “framing”, in other words, how an issue is presented and perceived in the public square. To a large extent, the debate over abortion is framed as religious people who are “pro-life” vs. secular people who are “pro-choice.” In point of fact, as a Conservative rabbi I am pro-choice precisely because of our religious teachings, and this is why the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism issued this statement this week after the Alabama legislature passed a law which, if allowed to go into effect, would ban virtually all abortions.

            The most recent spate of legislation is rooted in the Catholic and Evangelical Christian belief that we become full human beings with full human rights at the moment of conception. Catholics and Evangelicals have every right to believe this but it is a belief, it is not a scientifically provable fact. The normative Jewish teaching codified in the Talmud and Codes is that a fetus becomes a full human being at the moment of birth -- when its head or in the case of a breach birth the majority of its body has emerged from the womb.

            The halachic position that a fetus is not a full human being is rooted in Exodus 21:22-23. These verses describe a situation where two men are fighting with each other and as a result of their fight, a pregnant woman is injured. If the woman herself dies as a result, the death penalty is incurred. If the fetus dies but not the mother, the perpetrator is fined. The inescapable conclusion from these verses is that a fetus is not a full human being and causing its death is not murder, because in the Pentateuch there is no such thing as a fine for murder. There is only the death penalty.

            The fact that we do not consider a fetus a full human being does not mean that a fetus has no value. The Talmud says in a number of places that “a fetus is a limb of its mother” rather than an independent being itself, but just as we would need a compelling reason to amputate a limb, we need a compelling reason to “amputate,” so to speak, a fetus. But regardless of whether the halacha would or wouldn’t countenance any particular abortion, the assertion that abortion is “murder” is contrary to Jewish teachings, full stop.

            Halacha going back as far as the Mishnah (codified in 200 CE) actually requires abortion if carrying the pregnancy to term endangers the life of the mother. This is based on the law of the rodef, the “pursuer.” In a case where the fetus endangers its mother’s life, it is considered a “pursuer” and we are obligated to put the welfare of the mother first -- up until the point where the head or the majority of the body has emerged, at which point we don’t kill one human being to protect another.

            The point of this admittedly cursory survey of halacha regarding abortion is simply to help you understand what Jewish religious teaching on the subject is and why Jews do not share the belief of many Catholics and Evangelicals that abortion is murder and that all abortions should be banned. While in point of fact Judaism might disapprove of some of the reasons some women choose to have abortions, Judaism disapproves of lots of things which people do which nevertheless are and should remain perfectly legal. I’m not aware, for example, of any move anywhere in the United States to ban the sale of pork or of clothing made from a mixture of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11).

            Having counseled women who were unsure about having an abortion, and even having accompanied women to the abortion clinic, I know that this is a serious decision that is not made lightly. I deeply respect those who have a religious-based opposition to abortion but there is no reason for any state or the Federal government to decide that the Catholic/Evangelical belief is correct and the Jewish and liberal Protestant belief is wrong. I hope and pray that these clearly unconstitutional laws will not survive the judicial scrutiny they will surely receive.