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Jewish attitudes to abortion

Information: This article sets out some of the main Jewish beliefs about abortion.


Jewish familyIn the Bible, the Old Testament contains no explicit teaching on the matter of abortion. As such, Jewish attitudes to abortion are largely based on various Rabbinical insights, which tend to discuss the rights of an unborn child versus that of the mother. Maybe surprisingly, it is common to find Rabbis arguing that until a fetus is viable (able to survive outside of the womb), it should not be recognised as being 'fully human' (or having full-human rights). This is despite the fact that Jews believe life is sacred, and that humans have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).

In terms of what the Old Testament teaches about having children, the first commandment in the Bible is for humans to 'be fruitful and multiply' (Genesis 1:28). Elsewhere, we also read that having children is a sign of blessing ('If you fully obey the LORD your G-d and carefully follow all his commands... The fruit of your womb will be blessed.' - Deuteronomy 28:1-4).

According to Jewish Law, every man and woman is obliged to bring at least two children in the world, and that they should adopt if they cannot have their own.

In terms of abortion, Jews place great emphasis on the life of the mother, and do not believe that the life of any unborn child should take precedence over what is in the best interests of the whole family:

'The sanctity of marriage is not in reproduction. It is in the bond that exists between husband, wife and the children they want and love.' (Rabbi Morris N.. Kertzer, What is a Jew?)

Although Judaism allows for abortions to be performed in certain circumstances, there is a tendency for Jews to avoid 'all-or-nothing' approaches to the matter. This is because there is no clear teaching o the matter of abortion in the Old Testament, yet at the same time there is a strong emphasis on the idea of family.

Exodus 21:22-25 - Does the Bible really say nothing about abortion?

Although the Old Testament contains no specific teaching about whether abortion is morally right (or wrong) as far as G-d is concerned, there is a legal precedent set out for what should happen if a woman's pregnancy is accidentally 'terminated':

'If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.' (Exodus 21:22-25) Grapple by Jeffrey Palladini

Now the context of this law is what should happen if two men who are fighting should accidentally hit a pregnant woman, and cause her to give birth prematurely. The first thing to note here is that this 'law' does not speak about women who are actively seeking to terminate their pregnancy. The woman in Exodus 21 is not seeking to have an abortion, but is merely a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Secondly, the passage suggests that the only real life in consideration here, is that of the mother.

The 'no serious injury' reference is traditionally taken to refer to the mother. One reason given for this, is because the Old Testament law (Torah) never says that a fine is a suitable payment (or recompense) for the murder of someone. Instead, the Lex Talionis principle of an 'eye for an eye' is to be applied (see also Leviticus 24:18-20). We can see this principle in action in Exodus 21, for if the mother is fatally injured then the assailant must be put to death ('If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life'). The fact that this only refers to the mother's life, must simply be because the fetus is not considered to be 'fully human'. For if it were, then the Lex Talionis principle would also apply to it, and the same manner of compensation sought were its life to be lost.


Rabbinical teaching

The fact that Exodus 21:22-25 suggests that the life of the mother and the unborn child are not to be viewed in the same way, has been the foundation of various Rabbinical teachings permitting abortion when the mother's life is at risk from the child she is carrying:

'If a woman's labour becomes life threatening, the one to be born is dismembered in her abdomen and then taken out limb by limb, for her life comes before [the life of the fetus]. Once most of the child has emerged it is not to be touched, for one [life] is not be put aside for another.' (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6, second century CE)

'As long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a living thing and it is permissible to take its life in order to save its mother. Once the head has come forth, it may not be harmed because it is considered born.' (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), 1040-1105 C.E.)

'If a pregnant woman's labour becomes life threatening it is permitted to dismember the fetus in her abdomen, either by a medication or by hand, for it is like [an assailant] pursuing her [in order] to kill her.' (Mishneh Torah (dated 1189), Moses Maimonides, [Brackets mine])

One might feel that as far as this teaching is concerned, abortion is to be treated as a form of self-defence when the mother's life is at risk from her pregnancy!

In the eighteenth century, Rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776) argued that abortion is also permissible if a child was conceived in an adulterous relationship. In doing so, he recognised the emotional distress a woman may suffer from giving birth to an 'unwanted' child:

'Even if the mother's life is not in jeopardy, but only so as to save her from an evil associated with it that would cause her great pain... Our ruling is: in general it is certainly forbidden to destroy a fetus, but in the case before us of a married woman gone astray I hereby state my humble opinion that it is permitted, perhaps it is even worthy of being regarded as a mitzvah.' (Sh'eilat Yavetz No.43, Rabbi Jacob Emden - emphasis mine)

Rabbi Emden's phrase 'great pain' has been broadly interpreted to allow abortions for many reasons (E.g. If the mother has rubella, if the mother would become deaf). However, (following Maimonides) some Rabbis take a more restrictive view of the matter, saying that abortion is only really permissible when the life of the mother is directly threatened by the child she is carrying.

Although Rabbis have permitted abortions for a variety of reasons, none would condone the act for the sake of convenience.

Arguments in favour of abortion (Jewish perspectives)

Although Jews tend to frown upon the use of birth control, the Talmud (a record of discussions by Rabbis about certain aspects of Jewish law, ethics, customs and history) applauds the behavior of women who use it if they believe they will give birth to a deformed child, or could not adequately care for a child, or because they were mentally incapable of being a parent. Following this, modern Jews argue that birth control might also be practiced in cases where women are living in extreme poverty, or in inadequate living conditions, or if children in the family will suffer as a result of other children being born. Of course, if these are reasons why Jewish women should prevent themselves from becoming pregnant, it is not such a short step from here to suggest that these might also be good reasons why a woman should be permitted to have an abortion.

In terms of the specific teachings about abortion in Jewish law, this is clearly permitted when the mother's life is in danger (for the reasons we discussed earlier - see Exodus 21:22-25 - Does the Bible really say nothing about abortion?). It is also permitted because although the fetus is acknowledged to have some rights (due to it being a part of the woman's body), it does not have the right to take the life (or cause the death) of the mother.

'If [the mother's] finger is infected... so that her life is at stake, then we do amputate it; and if we fear that the fetus will endanger the woman's life if it comes to term, we perform an abortion.' (Rabbi Morris N.. Kertzer, What is a Jew? [Bracket mine])

The main reason the physical (and mental) health of the mother takes precedence over that of the unborn child, is simply because she is already alive.

Arguments against abortion (Jewish perspectives)

On the website Jews for Life, Anne Levine argues that people can only perform abortions if they first dehumanise the fetus (in other words treat it as less-than human). As we have seen, the belief that a fetus is less-than human prior to being born, has been held by some prominent Rabbis. However, Levine argues that this is exactly the same thing German officers needed to do to Jews in the concentration camps during World War II, before they killed them:

'When the Nazis wanted to annihilate the Jewish people, they knew they first had to dehumanize them. How to do this? By declaring that Jews were "untermenschen", or sub humans.' (Levine A., The Sins of the Fathers...and Mothers, Jews for life)

Picture of human fetusFounder of this website Bonnie Chernin Rogoff, also compares abortion on-demand and the Holocaust by claiming that, 'the Third Reich leaders were experts in distortion, and indoctrination techniques'. She believes that the Feminist movement is particularly guilty of encouraging women to have abortions, claiming that it (wrongly) 'indoctrinated' women into believing that taking control of their lives meant not only taking control of their body, but also that of any life growing inside it:

'I'm not afraid to call partial birth abortion infanticide, for that's what it is. I'm not ashamed to say that abortion degrades women, for that's what it does. As a Jew, I'm not wrong to refer to what supporters call "choice" as an American Holocaust, for that's what it has become.' (Rogoff B. C., Between two Holocausts, Jews for life)

One should note that although these are not strictly arguments against abortion, they are interesting insights as to how and why abortion has became an accepted part of western society (as far as some people are concerned).

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