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Abortion:  A Biblical View

03/07/2019 10:00:53 PM


Abortion is one of the most contentious issues in American society today. One camp describes itself as pro-life. They assert that even before birth, a fetus in its mother’s womb is a full life, and ending that life is nothing short of murder. Another camp casts itself as pro-choice. They assert that if a woman does not have the right to make decisions about her own body, then that is making her less than human. What does our Jewish tradition have to say? Does it push us into one camp or the other? I'd like to suggest that our tradition walks a third path, one that might bring wisdom to our larger society.
A few weeks ago, I spoke about the topic in a sermon, responding to new skirmishes in this battle across the US, and while space does not permit me to include those remarks here in their entirety, I’d like to offer some key points in light of a new law being considered which would sharply limit abortion in our own state.
One place we can begin tracking the discussion is in the book of Exodus, that we finish this week. We read in Exodus 21:12:
“One who hits a man and he dies- he himself shall die.”
The penalty for murder (or indeed, manslaughter) is death.
In contrast, a few verses later we read (Exodus 22:22-23)
“22. If men quarrel, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no further harm follows; he shall be surely punished, according to what the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23. And if a disaster follows, then you shall give life for life.”
There is a penalty for causing a pregnancy loss, but that penalty is not the same as the one for causing the loss of life of a human being who has been born. The loss of a fetus has implications, but they are not the implications of murder.
That does not mean that abortion is without ethical consequences. Elsewhere in rabbinic literature, we are told that the fetus is considered like a "limb of its mother." If a woman converts to Judaism while pregnant, her fetus is converted along with her. However, our bodies, and our limbs, do not belong solely to us; they are gifts from God that come with obligations. We are forbidden from harming our own bodies just as we are forbidden from harming those of others. Furthermore, our tradition values all life, even non-human life. Our Jewish tradition permits killing an animal for food or other products that will sustain human life, but not for sport.
The American debate about abortion tends to focus on viability- at what point is the fetus considered to have its own life separate from the mother? When is life said to begin?
Our Jewish tradition offers a range of views:
Some sources hold that until about six weeks, the fetus is considered “mere fluid,” and mystical sources suggest that it is 40 days after conception that the soul enters the body. Indeed, many sages suggest that the moral implications of abortion are much less serious in the earliest phase of the pregnancy. In contrast, though, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91b) records that Rabbi Judah the Prince was convinced by a pagan emperor that life must begin at conception. Still other views might suggest that true life does not begin until birth. Then again, I know one rabbi who says that life doesn't actually begin until the kids move out of the house.
Why is it that some other religious groups, who read the same Bible that we do, feel so strongly that abortion is forbidden under any circumstances? The answer is Greek to me. Literally! The Septuagint, the most famous translation of the Bible into Greek, interprets the same verse that we read from Exodus: "If there be a disaster, then it is life for life" to mean that "if there is a form to the fetus, then it is life for life"- killing the fetus is considered murder as soon as it has human form.
This more restrictive view is considered in Jewish sources, but not adopted as law. Maimonides actually splits the difference. Based on a verse in Genesis, he writes (Laws of Kings 9:4) that a "Son of Noah" (an ethical non-Jew) who killed a person, even a fetus in it's mother's womb, is capitally liable. Abortion is a capital crime for non-Jews, who only have to follow the basic commandments given to Noah, but not so for Jews, to whom the Exodus verses have priority.
However, our tradition, beginning with Mishnah Ohilot 7:6, recognizes that there are cases where abortion must be permitted, and may even be preferred. In doing so, it even contemplates cases where a pregnancy is terminated far beyond what we would consider the point of viability.
‘The woman who is having difficulty giving birth, we cut up the fetus in the womb, and remove it limb by limb, because her life precedes his. If most of him comes out, you can't touch him, because you can't push off a life for a life.”
The origin for this idea actually comes from Exodus as well. Exodus 22:1 implies that if you have legitimate reason to suspect that someone might kill you, one may kill that person first.
And so, our tradition holds that while there is a responsibility to protect the life of a fetus, that responsibility is not absolute, as it would be for a full person. If the physical and psychological wellbeing of the mother are at risk, they must take precedence even over the very life of the fetus.
Rabbis Ben-Zion Bokser and Kassel Abelson laid out a Conservative Jewish view over 35 years ago. “The fetus is a life in the process of development, and the decision to abort it should never be taken lightly. Before reaching a decision, the mother should consult with the father, other members of the family, her spiritual leader, and any other person who can help her in assessing the many grave legal and moral issues involved.” (
And so, our tradition would not support abortion for purposes of convenience or gender selection, but would do so when continuing the pregnancy would cause harm to the mother. It is difficult to create blanket criteria for what constitutes harm. It includes the classic situations of medical risk, as well as “embryo reduction” when, as a result of fertility treatments, a woman may be carrying multiple embryos and some must be terminated for the pregnancy to have the greatest chance of success. However, it also would include the psychological harm caused to the mother by carrying a fetus which not be viable or will suffer severe impediments, or even a pregnancy which is a result of circumstances that cause shame or distress. Most importantly, this decision bears profound ethical implication. We would hope that each woman would seek ethical guidance, but we recognize that often the “right answer” depends on factors that are unique to each woman and cannot be legislated in broad strokes.
A helpful analogy is that abortion is like divorce. It is a terrible end to something with holy potential. It something that no-one should want, and something that should be far rarer than it is. And yet there are times when it is the most ethical response to a terrible situation. Moreover, it is hard for any of us to judge the experience of another person facing that choice.
The Jewish approach suggests that as a society, we should seek a world where medically recommended abortion is safe and legal, with room left as well for the individual circumstances of the woman. The legislation currently being considered by our legislature fails this test, and as people of faith, we have the opportunity to let our neighbors know..
Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784