Is Judaism Pro-Choice or Pro-Life?
by Jeremy Rosen
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.