Dear Tanta Golda,
I don’t wish to offend you, but I’m confused about what the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade means to me as a Jew? I had an aunt who was raised in an Orthodox home who travelled to Mexico in the early 1960s to get an abortion because she and my uncle were told another pregnancy could kill her. (She’d had complications due to diabetes.) I can’t imagine her even contemplating this if Judaism said it was immoral, but I hear some people say that life begins at conception. Could you shed some light in these dark times?
My darling Struggling. Oy, aren’t we all right now? I’m glad you’ve asked about this emotionally complex issue. Now, before some of my readers start wringing their hands, you are entitled to your personal beliefs. This article is taking on the Jewish view of abortion.
Not too surprisingly, the different streams of Judaism have somewhat different views about under what circumstances abortion is religiously acceptable. That being said, certain aspects of this question are agreed upon by ALL streams, from the most liberal to the most traditional.
1. Life does not begin at conception. You read that correctly. According to numerous rabbinic sources, life begins when the head of the child enters the world. Until that time, the fetus is considered another ‘limb’ of the mother, and therefore she has say over what she does to it. Just as you can decide whether or not to donate a kidney to your Aunt Sadie—even if your kidney is the only way to save her life. As further proof, the rabbis discussed in the Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b: “the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day.#” Science fiction movies not withstanding, water isn’t alive. According to another rabbinic text, a fetus is not even “viable” until the seventh month. But, even among Orthodox rabbis, being viable only gives the fetus “partial life,” which still does not trump the health and safety of the mother. If we only delved this far, we can see that the rabbis most certainly did not consider life beginning at conception.
Some have asked me, what about the child’s soul? According to Jewish belief, ensoulment is not a Halachic (Jewish law) issue since full human status in Judaism occurs only at the birth of a full-term baby. Which brings us to point number two.
2. Abortion is not murder. In this instance, let me point you to the Torah. Exodus 21:22-23, recounts a story of two men who are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, resulting in her subsequent miscarriage. The verse explains that if the only harm done is the miscarriage, then the perpetrator must pay a fine. The common rabbinic interpretation is that if the only harm is the loss of the fetus, it is treated as a case of property damage — not murder. However, if the pregnant person is gravely injured, the penalty shall be a life for a life as in other homicides. Notice the distinction. Causing the death of a living breathing woman is murder, but causing the termination of a pregnancy is not. *Some Orthodox believe that once a fetus has reached the end of the sixth month, see viability above, abortion is “possible” murder—unless the life of the mother is threatened.
Third term abortions are rare (<1%) and nearly always done for medical reasons.
3. If you were here—well first, I’d offer you a nosh—but once refreshed you might point out that science has come so far since the time of Rashi and Maimonides, we know more about fetal development. At some point, perhaps past the seventh month, doesn’t the fetus have rights? No, bubbeleh. The rabbis agree that until the child has fully emerged they are not considered a person. (Of course, as any beaming mother-to-be will tell you, without a doubt there’s a little person growing in them, but we are talking about saged, rabbinic rulings, not emotion.) To quote Mishnah, Ohalot 7:6 If the life of the mother is endangered by the fetus, “her life takes precedence over [the fetus’s] life.” This is an important point given the restrictions some states are imposing, or threatening to impose on those who can bear children. The life of the mother always takes precedence. Across all streams of Judaism. Always.
Now we get into grey areas where different streams of Judaism, even different rabbis within a stream interpret things, well, differently. Since, my dear reader, you’re likely Jewish, would you expect them all to agree?
I’m talking about if and when abortion is acceptable (Halachically) when the mother’s life isn’t in danger.
Most rabbis agree that abortion should not be used for convenience. To Tanta Golda, that seems like a very broad, and subjective term. But, equally subjective is when some rabbis say, ‘the mental health of the mother’ should be considered. All of which is to say, whatever position you take about abortion when it’s not saving the mother’s physical life, Judaism probably agrees with you.
Tanta Golda’s sources at My Jewish Learning have this to add, “There are Orthodox rabbinic sources that support abortion when a mother’s health is in danger even if her life is not at risk; when a fetus is conclusively determined to suffer from severe abnormalities; when a mother’s mental health is in danger; or when the pregnancy is the result of a forbidden sexual union. However, these rulings are not universally accepted,” and most cases should be judged on a case-by-case basis. *Some of these rabbinic sources are cited from another source in the first link below.*
And one last point, in Israel abortion is legal, and in many cases, even qualifies to be paid for by the State. Israel—where the Chief Rabbi is Orthodox, where all marriages must be religious marriages, where Reform Jews are viewed by some as apostates—that Israel, allows abortion. Just a little something to ponder.
To conclude, my Struggling dear one, we acknowledge that this is an important, emotionally fraught issue with few answers that work for everyone. Please, my readers, whatever your personal views, be kind to those who disagree with you.
Much love as you struggle with the tough questions, Tanta Golda
#40 days after she would have entered the mikvah, so 54 days from her last period.
If you wish to see where Tanta Golda sourced much of her information you can go here: