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The Value of a Life

05/30/2019 04:31:43 PM


This week’s portion, Behukotai, describes the process whereby, a person may dedicate to God the “value” of another person as a donation. It challenges modern sensibilities because the amount of the valuation changes based on the age and gender of that person. Can one human life be valued more than another? How can a financial value be placed on life at all? A careful reader will also notice that there is no value given for the life of a newborn less than a month old. In ancient times, it was understood that pregnancy, and even birth, might not always lead to a full life. The question of how we value life, and in particular, how we compare the relative value of different lives, is one that continues to inflame our American society, as we debate the question of abortion. This week, as the debate continues to intensify, I want to offer some thoughts on how we frame this conversation.

I am frustrated that some who are leading the charge to make abortion illegal do so as a cynical gesture to score political points. Some of these efforts show a lack of concern for the life and wellbeing of pregnant women, and some of those calling for these restrictions show little care for the wellbeing of the children themselves once they have been born. They sometimes rely on incorrect understandings of the actual biological processes that surround fertility and pregnancy.

However, I cannot tar all with that brush. I understand there are those who are opposed to all abortions because their theology leads them to believe that life begins at conception. They believe, fervently, that fetal life is full life of equal value to maternal life. Even as I disagree with their view, born as it is of a misreading of scripture, I respect the sincerity of their faith. If I believed that abortion was murder, I would also be morally bound to protest.

However, that is not my belief. Our Jewish tradition reads the same Biblical texts in a different way. We understand that every life does indeed have value, including the life of an unborn fetus. However, we also understand that the life and wellbeing of the mother has precedence over that of the fetus. In fact, many who might think of themselves as being on the “pro-life” side, implicitly recognize this prioritization of mother over child. If abortion were truly murder, it would not matter whether the pregnancy were the product of rape or incest. Those who permit even that minimal a carve-out do so because the impact of such a pregnancy on the wellbeing of the mother is enough to outweigh the very life of the fetus.

What makes the issue so challenging, from an ethical perspective, is how we apply the lesson of Behukotai and balance the relative value of these two lives. What impact on the life of the mother is morally sufficient to justify the end of the life of the fetus? Even ethicists who agree as to the general principle are likely to disagree as to where the line should be. It is impossible for broad civil legislation to anticipate every possible scenario.

Furthermore, our tradition understands that there are some choices where we are bound to the judgment of those who are most intimately involved. The Talmud (Yoma 83a) and the Shulhan Arukh (OH 618:1) both say that if 100 doctors say that a person is safe to fast on Yom Kippur, but the person insists that her health demands it, we allow that individual to eat, because “the heart knows its own bitterness.” Very few people are in favor of true “abortion on demand.” I am sure that all would rather see fewer lives ended rather than more, and Jewish ethics suggest that ideally abortion would be an uncommon event. However, our tradition tells us that we must have the humility to know that others cannot truly judge what is in the heart of a woman facing a momentous choice. We can’t presume the role of Behukotai, assigning a relative valuation to her life. Instead we must leave her leeway to interpret the impact for herself.

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784