Is Judaism Pro-Choice or Pro-Life?

November 9, 2012 12:19 pm 17 comments

Pro-life and pro-choice protesters.

Thank goodness the election is over and we can get on with the fun things in our lives! The Bible clearly encourages men and women to procreate, and big families are regarded in our tradition as blessings. Avraham, for example, tells God that having a son is the one thing missing in his life. At the same time, we are told repeatedly of how profoundly women suffer, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and later Shmuel’s mother Hannah because of their inability to reproduce for long periods of their lives.

So if having children is so important why should abortion (or contraception for that matter), ever be allowed? Jewish law is against abortion unless a woman’s life is in danger. In this we differ from Catholicism, for we do not consider a child to be a full-fledged human being until its head and the majority of its body has come out of the womb. And we do allow abortion to save her life. Neither do we consider what is in the mother’s womb to be anything more significant than liquid until after 40 days from conception. The issue of what constitutes a danger to a woman’s life is, interestingly, one of the areas where we see Jewish law responding to changing circumstances and knowledge. Many experts now include psychological damage into that zone. None that I know of would consider financial circumstances a reason for abortion (although there are increasingly Orthodox rabbis who would include this in the justification for contraceptive use).

The Talmud in Sanhedrin tells of how Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi had an argument with the Roman Emperor Antoninus about the question of when the soul enters the human body. And remember this is a theological issue rather than a legal one. Rebbi said it is from the moment that it acquires a human form (the Talmud assumes a period of three months for that, in Brachot 60a). Antoninus said it is when the egg is fertilized. To which Rebbi replied that, after consideration, Antoninus was right. And he quotes Job to support his position.

That story is remarkable in itself, in that the compiler of the Mishna was prepared to accept the superiority of Roman knowledge. But it also teaches us that although there is a developmental difference between the stages of the embryo, and we make use of that to allow for abortions under certain circumstances, pure logic really belongs to those who say you cannot differentiate in human life at all. Drawing the line is arbitrary. Nevertheless, halacha is practical, and we do draw lines. Jewish Law considers the fetus to be a limb of the mother until it has emerged from the womb. Which is why if the fetus endangers the life of the mother, we can ‘amputate’ it so that the existing, viable human, the mother, can live. This is the genius of Jewish law; that although Torah is paramount, it is trumped by the need to preserve life (Leviticus 18).

Ironically, in Jewish law killing a fetus before it reaches maturity is not a capital crime, but it is to a descendant of Noah (who, in previous times, if he or she adhered to the Seven Noachide Laws, had to be given equal civil rights in Jewish society). It sounds illogical. If the demands on a Noachide are in general far less strict, why be tougher in this issue? But if your culture is one that respects human life in general, and at high levels of concern, then you will only take it under the most extreme circumstances, such as to save a life. But if your culture treats human life casually in general, believes in child sacrifices (as most pagans then did), you will be much more lax and loose in how you deal with the unborn.

We do, indeed, value all life from egg to birth. But we may make use of it in its early stages to preserve and protect human life in specific and in general. But just as the law in regard to the fetus assumes a foundation of respect, so the way we legislate for women ought to assume a foundation of respect.

It has taken Western society a long time to come near to approaching women as equals and, sadly, in too many cultures, including some parts of our own, we are still a long way from it. The very fact that some, mainly males, want to remove personal choices from women over matters of terminating or preventing pregnancy, is indicative of the continuing male orientated mentality.

As a Jew, I know what my laws are and they lay down the boundaries. I have the freedom to choose to follow them. If some rabbis choose to be too cautious or prohibitive in applying Jewish Law in regard to women, that is a fault in them, not the law. But in the end, the woman is the one who must weigh up the conflicting emotions and traditions and decide for herself (or if she is married with her husband). It is the height of arrogance for people to decide for her in a democratic world on the basis of their own religious convictions or biases. All the more so, since most of us nowadays live in two or more moral and political frameworks. It is up to us to decide on our personal moral choices, not for others. Any more than others can tell us how to worship.

When it comes to legislation in a democracy, religions have no right to impose their stringencies on the general population, whether on free speech or free choice. Religious people can choose to abide by their Sabbaths, but they ought not impose them on others unless it is a democratic decision and then, as when you do not like whom the country voted for President, you can always pick up and move. That is why I support the right of women, in society in general, to have abortions and to make choices about their bodies. Nevertheless, given that there are alternatives, including contraception, I agree that the law should not be a free-for-all. There can be a balance as there is with driving a car–just because you are allowed to drive, that doesn’t permit you to drive dangerously.

Therefore, I am pro-choice but I strongly object to the implication that I am not pro-life. After all, Judaism is pro-life: “And you shall live by these commandments, not die by them.” (TB Yoma 85b, etc.)

This is an example of the dishonesty of slogans that obscure truth. If anything, American pro-lifers are really pro-death. Many of them seem to want the mother to die before the fetus.

Most religious establishments want to stop abortions. Libertarians want to allow them to continue (with certain limitations). This is another example of how it can be morally compromising to have to accept the whole of any political platform and why religion in politics is so dangerous. What I choose to adhere to is not necessarily what should be imposed on everyone else.

17 Comments

  • Around 98% of abortions in western countries have nothing to do with either danger to the mother or rape or incest, they are post facto contraceptives used by people who chose to have sex and would rather kill a human being rather than live with the consequences. That we as a society tolerate mass abortion has nothing to do with the blather in this article and everything to do with the fact that if we didn’t we would have to learn to control ourselves and we can’t be bothered, so we let the blood flow.

    This is the very definition of a culture that “treats human life casually in general” and confirms the wisdom of Judaism in giving Rabbis a certain limited space with which to work while imposing an absolute prohibition on everyone else who eveidently cannot be trusted with it. This has nothing to do with “religions imposing their stringencies on people”, it has to do with telling women that it is not acceptable for them to kill children because they can’t be bothered to exercise self-restraint.

    The justification for current abortion laws based on the 1-2% of cases that can be plausibly justified is like saying that because a modern economy needs banking services, we should allow banks to commit fraud, or, even more absurdly that preventing them from doing so would be imposing our religious scruples to the detriment of their rights!

  • “Exceptions” and extenuating circumstances that need to be considered before condemning the practice of abortion have been exploited, misused, misrepresented and poorly applied to a shocking and disgusting level. Given that 98-99% of the abortions that are currently performed have no solid justification in Jewish law or tradition, it has become imperative that we simply “side” with the pro-life movement. Enough is enough with this era’s abortion free-for-all. People like Dr. Morgentaler, Gloria Steinem and Barbara Boxer are NOT representative of the “Jewish position on abortion” and have become embarrassments and outdated dinosaurs. It’s time to stop worrying that we seem like we’re kissing up to Catholics and simply do what’s RIGHT. That’s what we’re about, isn’t it?

  • The proper question is ‘is our God pro-choice or pro-life’. Forget about ‘religion’. As we are aligned with His heart, we become His true expression in the earth. He gives Life.

    • Thats all very well but assumning you believe God has spoken to you personally on this matter you’ll have a problem convincing most other people that youre sane.
      Thats why most believers I know resort to their Holy Texts to understand the Heart of God which is precisely what I do.
      Jeremy

  • When a seed geminates that its inception of becoming a plant or a tree. It needs soil and water to do so. Till it was a seed it was like an egg waiting to be fertilized. In the plant kingdom the seed is already fertilized, and needs the right combo in order to grow. Same is the case when life begins in the vomb, it is alive at conception, like the plant it has has to go through transformation to become the end product, the vomb is there to nurture it. life does begin then. We can dispute the technicalities but by all logic it a being then when the first cell division takes place it does not have a beating heart for weeks yet,if that is the criteria for life. True the woman should have the right to choose what to do with it in case of incest rape and what have you. Religion aside just our conscious tells us it’s plain wrong to kill anything unless it is necessary. Abortion is a cruel and and ghastly necessity at times yet in my humble opnion it should be discouraged so that our youth do not become calloused and lose respect for life.

  • … And here I thought that we Jews do not consider the fetus a person until he or she graduates from medical school! ;-) Sorry, could not resist. I enjoyed reading your article, thank you. I am very pro-choice, but I personally have a bit of a twist. I actually hate it when those who are anti-choice want to make exceptions in cases of rape and incest. To me, this is completely hypocritical – after all, it they really believe that the fetus is a full human being, why make exceptions? They do it in a cynical way to soften their absolutist stand, to make their argument more palatable to the masses, and I find it absolutely astonishing that people would buy this argument. Just sayin’

    • Nice joke about graduating from Medical School. The issue you raise of rape etc is a complex one. From one angle of course you are right. The poor fetus has no way of differentiating the nature of the act that created it and termination prevents the possibility of a perfectly viable human being emerging to be adopted by a loving couple.
      On the other hand I think of the poor violated woman being reminded day after day for nine months of what hell she went through. Some women I know are strong enough to overcome this and equally,some enlightened rabbis will include her mental state in deciding.
      But it is such a tough call.
      Jeremy

    • I find it interesting when pro-choicers refer to pro-lifers as anti-choice. I suppose you are anti-life then? Pro-death?

      • Anti Anti
        Silly boy.I am anti governments interfering in private choices and imposing religious values on those who are not religious.
        I am pro living a life according to Jewish Law for those who choose to!
        J

  • Thank you for your article and your insights on this important issue.

    Many who refer to themselves as “pro-choice” argue that the decision about whether to abort is mainly/solely the woman’s as it is an issue pertaining to her body. This statement is true to the extent that another human-being is forming inside her and the pregnancy itself directly impacts on the mother. The argument of “a woman’s body” is misleading in a significant respect – while the baby is forming inside the mother, it is certainly becomes an individual that is not part of the mother’s body – but is rather an individual.

    However, what many in the “pro-choice” camp routinely ignore or gloss-over is that there is another person involved – the baby. As much as the pregnancy involves the mother, it has a much more critical impact on the baby – it is the baby’s life that is on the line, but the baby has no ability to argue in its own defense.

    I know someone who had to have an emergency c-section with a baby about 3 months premature. Many babies who are very premature survive even after 6 months (or somewhat less) of pregnancy. However, some abortions occur on babies who are viable if delivered at that point rather than killed.

    As you note, there is a difference once a baby is 40 days into the pregnancy than before, though abortion is not permitted simply for “convenience” even before that time.

    It is unfortunate that there is such callousness – largely stemming from ignorance – as to the main victim of the abortion – the baby in-utero. It is important for society to be educated as to the stages of pregnancy and how advanced the baby is even relatively early on in the pregnancy.

    As for religion in politics – you do note that, if done in a democratic manner, certainly pro-life positions could become the law of the land (and is certainly different than the “separation of church and state” which forbids the state from establishing a religion and from limiting its free-exercise).

    You mention the Noachide laws in relation to abortion. As with Judaism, G-d grants people free-will to make choices. Sometimes the choices involve no wrongdoing, while at other times the choice is between right and wrong. In democracies, citizens are required to follow the law, but can choose whether to do so. So is the case as relates to Judaism and the 7 Laws of Noach. Each individual has the ability to make his or her own decisions and is rewarded for the good decisions they make.

    Noachide law applies as much today as it has since the time of Noach – when G-d gave man that law, just as Judaism applies today as much as it has since the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Lack of enforcement of these codes of law in no way means they are any less applicable. One of the 7 Laws of Noach requires the establishment of courts to enforce the other 6 laws.

    So while many in society abide by Moral Absolutism (e.g., morality that remains unchanged over time), others have adopted Moral Relativism (e.g., morality that changes). A person who believes that abortion is wrong (with exceptions such as of the life of the mother) due to Divine Law would be the former, while individuals who have a moral system that changes with the times and environment (for example), would be adherents to Moral Relativism (they may oppose abortion if society regards it as immoral, though would support it in many modern-day countries where such beliefs are accepted by large segments of society).

    It is uncommon for people who are pro-life to be opposed to saving the mother’s life – to make an absurd generalization that pro-lifers are somehow pro-death (?????) is a completely unwarranted and false generalization that maligns a growing majority of Americans (who are increasingly becoming pro-life) and attempts to degrade the debate on the value of life to baseless insults.

    For religion to influence an individual to cherish life rather than to be callous to it is certainly not dangerous. What is dangerous is allowing individuals to make decisions ending another’s life even late in the pregnancy for matters of “convenience”, for example. This ends the life of an unborn child who is defenseless.

    Passing a law that values the life of the mother and unborn child would certainly be welcome.

    • Yochanan
      Thank you for that response. Yes we are too callous and abortion has been used far too cavalierly. But the issue of choice for me is indeed predicated on the principle undisputed in Halacha,that the fetus is not an equivalent life to the mother.Its status goes through various stages in the womb. This is why stem cell research is not an issue in Halacha during the first phase.
      But it is true the disadvantage of a less rigid more flexible sytem of law and ethics is where to draw the line. This is Orthodoxy insists on Rabbinic consultation and a partnership between Jewish Law and medicine.
      In a similar vein I would expect secular civil law equally to draw lines and to involve expert opinion. But I am arguing for the rights of women to be involved in the process too and not to be patronized. But this doesn’t mean that competely irresponsible, unfeeling humans should dictate the law either.
      J

  • AS USUAL I AGREE WITH YOU MOST OF THE TIME.
    IT IS UP TO THE WOMAN HERSELF TO DECIDE, AFTER TAKING HER
    CIRCUMSTANCES INTO CONSIDERATION.

    BUT POLITICS AND RELIGION GET MIXED AND IT MOVES LIKE THIS IS THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH.
    A FEW MATTERS ARE ABSOLUTE BUT THE TRUTH IS NOT ONE OF THEM.

    A MOTHER MUST HAVE THE RIGHT TO DECIDE IF HER UNBORN CHILD WILL LIVE OR DIE, FOR WHATEVER REASON.
    THE SAME GOES IF A PERSON AFTER CAREFUL CONSIDERATION
    DECIDES TO END HIS OR HER LIFE.

    SANCTITY OF LIFE AND…DEATH.

  • Fredric M. London

    Very well said. When religion mixes with politics you have jihadist states. Unfortunately, the leaders of the ‘pro-life’ movement are, as you put it, pro-death. They are not interested in the safety of the mother or the child. They do not care one bit about helping people in need, providing prenatal care, or substance abuse treatment. This is demonstrated by their ferocious commitment to executing everyone convicted of capital crimes, regardless of whether the individual is innocent or guilty, has had legal representation, is too young, or mentally irresponsible. On this subject, they are totally blood thirsty. It was also a group of ‘pro-life’ subscribers who, when asked by a presidential candidate if someone without health insurance should be allowed to die, cheered wildly. Their morality is, essentially, finger wagging. They would prohibit abortions and contraception with the childish concept of, ‘you had sex, you can just pay the consequences.’

  • I enjoyed reading your column, though I respectfully disagree with your conclusion. It was well reasoned and researched. However, there is one point that you made at the end that I believe is unreasonable. You wrote, “If anything, American pro-lifers are really pro-death. Many of them want the mother to die before the fetus.” As a pro-life woman, I believe abortion should be allowed if a woman’s life or health is seriously threatened; and in my experience, I have found that most pro-lifers believe as I do. Certainly, some hold the view you described, but I believe you are wrong to imply that the majority of us do.

    • PaGirl
      You are of course absolutely right and I should not have generalized. I just could not help myself putting it that provocative gibe which I am sure is only relevant to a limited number of fanatics. Given that I get annoyed when people so often generalize abour orthodox Judaism I should have been more cautious.
      Jeremy

    • Ira Jay Rose, MSW

      An excellent article that reviewed the material covered by my course in Jewish Social Issues at Wurzweiler School of Social Wok at Yeshiva University.
      I have to take exception to PAgirl’s comment:
      “As a pro-life woman, I believe abortion should be allowed if a woman’s life or health is seriously threatened; and in my experience, I have found that most pro-lifers believe as I do. Certainly, some hold the view you described, but I believe you are wrong to imply that the majority of us do.”
      PERHAPS – and that is a big perhaps, a majority of the “pro-lifers” with whom you socialize agree with you. I’m willing to be that you are not involved beyond making contributions to some local group which calls itself “Pro-life”, but should rather be called “Anti-Constitution”, since the primary arguments used are religious, meaning these Church funded groups are attempting to establish laws based on some vague manipulation of obscure Biblical quotes, including a Psalm.
      If you went to a meeting of any of the “Pro-life” organizations and expressed your opinions, you would be condemned as a “baby-killer’. Look at the number of candidates who refused to allow abortions for “legitimate rapes” in the last election…. You are an exception, not the rule.
      I grant that abortion is an emotionally charged issue, but American laws are not to be based on religion, but compassion.
      By the way, I am opposed to abortion except when needed to save the physical or emotional life of the mother, or for victims of rape or incest…. But we have to allow it for all women.

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