Abortion is a hot topic these days, with some saying it’s a woman’s right to choose, and men should not dictate to women what to do with their bodies. Others argue that life is precious and you can’t kill a child. The issue of abortion has risen to the top of the public agenda. Abortion-rights activists have been warning that it’s being threatened by a conservative leaning supreme court. Pro-life groups have been alarmed by a recent NY State law allowing abortion up to the time of birth.
What does Judaism have to say about abortion?
According to Jewish law, neither argument has any bearing. Judaism does not give the right to choose nor right to life. In fact, the concept of “rights” as articulated in the Bill of Rights does not exist in Jewish thought. Judaism is a religion of responsibilities, not rights. (Despite this, we must be thankful for the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, which was the first time in history that Jewish religious belief was fully protected under law.)
Let’s take a look at the foundational principle in the argument about abortion, the responsibility to preserve life. When a woman’s life is in danger because of a pregnancy, Jewish law is clear that because, as Maimonides explains, the mother is then considered a “viable life” while the fetus is a“non-viable life.” Because the fetus poses a threat to the life of the women an abortion is permitted. Danger to life is defined by a medical expert who has evaluated the woman and can include serious risk to the mental health of a woman. Except for this specific situation, it is forbidden to terminate the pregnancy.
The spiritual and deeper explanation of the law is that life is a Divine gift and the fusion of two opposites: the body and the soul. As humans, we are simply trustees of life, and we have no right to take it. This concept has many other applications. For instance, we are prohibited from denying food and drink to a person in the very last stages of life, even though there are cases where medicines can be withheld. (This is a very delicate area of Jewish law, and each individual case must be assessed by an expert in Jewish law in consultation with a physician. One should not draw any specific conclusions to individual cases of patients at the end of life from this article.) Similarly, we are prohibited from taking our own life. For that reason Israel bans euthanasia.
One could make an argument that the legalization of abortion is warranted because there are cases in Jewish law when abortion is permitted to protect the life of a mother.
However the assertion of some that it is a “right” is not a correct reflection of Jewish tradition, nor can one say that Judaism endorses abortion on demand. Judaism also does not agree with the position of the Catholic Church that equates the life of the fetus with the life of the mother.
There is certainly a diversity of views in the Jewish community on this sensitive issue. While all of us as Jews and citizens have the right in the democratic society to express our views, still we must be careful in insinuating that our views are supported by Judaism when the opposite could just as easily be true.
RABBI DAVID ELIEZRIE is at Chabad/Beth Meir HaCohen in Yorba Linda, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.