The issue of abortion is a charged topic, both hotly and widely debated across the globe. It is an issue that touches on the core values of religion and civil society. On the one hand is the issue of the sanctity of life and the concern for the right to life of the yet unborn. On the other hand, government regulations on abortion are seen as a violation of privacy and a woman’s right to decide whether or not to see a pregnancy to term.
While most would agree that individual liberty does not sanction murder, when it comes to abortion the issue turns on the very definition of when life begins. The answer to that question is religiously or ideologically driven, and as such, abortion immediately involves people’s most sacrosanct beliefs and opinions about God, the soul, and the nature of existence. The opposing camps of “pro life” and “pro choice” seem to be at eternal loggerheads. The most recent legal expression of this debate was on June 27, 2016 when the US Supreme prevented Texas from reducing the number of statewide abortion clinics from 40 to 10.
Judaism’s approach to this complicated and sensitive matter differs radically from some of the well-known stances on the topic, such as the Roman Catholic Church’s position at one extreme and pro-choice permissiveness at the other. The former unconditionally prohibits abortion from the moment of conception, while the latter sees abortion as the right of every woman to make her own decision concerning her body.
The Torah source for the prohibition of abortion, qualified by the Talmud, is found in Parshas Noach:
He who spills human blood shall have his own blood spilled by man, for God made man in His own image. [Bereishit (Genesis) 9:6]
In the name of Rabbi Yishmael it was said: [A Noachide may be put to death] even for the killing of a fetus. What is Rabbi Yishmael’s source? For it is written, “One who spills the blood of a person shall have his own blood spilled by another person [literally read: one who spills the blood of a person inside another person etc.].” (Bereishit 9:6). Which person is inside another person? This is referring to the fetus in the mother’s womb. [Talmud Bavli (Babylonian Talmud), Sanhedrin 57b]
There is nothing that is permitted to the Jew but is forbidden to the gentile. [Ibid. 59a]
Judaism embraces the tremendous sanctity of life. Judaism prohibits the wanton destruction of a fetus, and as such, sides with the pro-life camp in condemning the use of abortion as mere birth control. On the other hand, Judaism also recognizes the necessity for abortion in certain cases and therefore does not ban it. Which instances specifically warrant abortion is itself a hotly debated topic within Jewish law, one in which there is no clear-cut consensus. Practically, one should seek guidance from a competent halachic authority.
This Morasha class will explore the issue of abortion from the perspective of the Jewish tradition, delving into the classical sources, as well as the modern-day legal decisions of the leading experts in Jewish law. In doing so we will seek to answer the following questions:
- Where in the Torah or the Talmud does it discuss the issue of abortion?
- Does Jewish law prohibit abortion as a form of murder, or is there another basis for the prohibition?
- Under which circumstances is abortion permitted in Jewish law?
- How early in the pregnancy does the prohibition apply?
- How does Judaism’s approach differ from secular and Catholic approaches to abortion? Is it more in line with the pro-life or the pro-choice camp?