Project Genesis

Childbearing & Fertility


Abortion - Permitted?

Question: I’m Jewish and against abortion. But, Jewish law teaches abortion is ok. How do I remain Jewish and reconcile Jewish law? This is what I got from another website: “Abortion: Jewish law not only permits, but in some circumstances requires abortion. Where the mother’s life is in jeopardy because of the unborn child, abortion is mandatory. An unborn child has the status of “potential human life” until the majority of the body has emerged from the mother. Potential human life is valuable, and may not be terminated casually, but it does not have as much value as a life in existence. The Talmud makes no bones about this: it says quite bluntly that if the fetus threatens the life of the mother, you cut it up within her body and remove it limb by limb if necessary, because its life is not as valuable as hers. But once the greater part of the body has emerged, you cannot take its life to save the mother’s, because you cannot choose between one human life and another. ” I’ve never read the Talmud but if what this author claims is correct – then Judaism permits abortion. And, that’s unacceptable to me in many cases.

Answer: The information you received was accurate, but misleading.

The source is a Mishna (Oholos 7:6), which states that if the baby is threatening the mother’s life, you may abort. Implicit in this teaching, of course, is that in a case where the mother’s life is not threatened, abortion is forbidden. Indeed, even in cases where having the baby will cause significant hardship, financial or otherwise, Jewish law nevertheless does not permit abortion.

You were also correct in that before birth, the status of the unborn fetus is not on par with that of a born child. The basis for that is found in the Torah. In Exodus 21:22-25 the Torah discusses a case where someone strikes a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry. The punishment is monetary and not capital, and this serves as a source for establishing the status of the fetus. (For further reading, see the Septuagint which translates this passage quite differently than the original Hebrew. This mistranslation implied that a viable fetus does have the status of a person born child. It is also noteworthy that based on this translation, the early church fathers equated abortion with full-fledged murder and canonized this into Christian law.)

Yehoshua Lewis

1 Follow-up »

  1. Question: Thank you, Rabbi Lewis. This is a powerful issue for me. I’ve never been in a situation where a child I fathered was aborted. However, I did lose a son to miscarriage and that was very painful. I’m 32 and have and had female friends and family who had abortions and I see the spiritual and psychological damage it’s done to them. I don’t believe pro-choice advocates tell the whole story. Recent events in South Dakota have made me all the more aware.

    I don’t feel that abortion is right in all cases but I believe becoming a parent means a willingness to sacrifice even life itself for my child. Thus, I wonder if saving the life of the mother is, indeed, justification enough for abortion. Certainly I have compassion for people. I pray that no one ever has to make that choice. What do you believe?

    Intellectually, I understand what you mean about the fetus becoming a full-fledged human life only after it is born. But, when is a child born? After conception or after it passes through the vagina? Knowing what people know now about premature birth and the ability to successfully incubate a child 3 or months prematurely born – does a child have to be physically “born” to be considered a full-fledged human being?

    Answer: In Jewish law, a child (or any mammal for that matter is “born” when either the head emerges or if most of the body emerges. Whether or not the child can survive on its own without the mother does not play a role in determining the status of the fetus.

    As for what I believe. I believe that the Torah was given by God to man as a moral code book for life. Sometimes we don’t understand everything in there, but it nevertheless represents Divine wisdom. So what I assume you are asking me is to pretend that the Torah wasn’t given yet. Which direction would my own moral compass point me to? ( Keep in mind that my years of Torah study make me quite a biased arbiter. But I will try.) I happen not to have a strong personal opinion either way. The way I look at it is, if the fetus is just a part of the woman’s body, then abortion is OK. If its not, its murder. Who makes that determination? Who can decide either way? I can’t. To me, both arguments have their merits.

    I enjoy your questions. It’s dialogues like this that have kept the Jewish people alive for all these years.

    Comment by ATR — March 8, 2006 @ 11:05 pm

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


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