The great Jewish law codifier Maimonides adds the further argument that such a fetus, being in “pursuit” of the mother’s life, however unintentionally, may be destroyed as an “aggressor,” following the general principle of self-defense. Rashi, the greatest of all Jewish Bible commentators, says this is so because as long as the baby does not come out it is not a nefesh, not a human being and therefore, not fully alive. (Sanh.)
Judaism still prohibits abortion, but on the grounds of either ‘wasting seed,’ ‘personal, self-inflicted harm to the body,’ or, in the case of a minority of Rabbis, a form of manslaughter, with an even smaller minority saying it can be considered murder. But because, according to most Rabbinical authorities, the nature of the prohibition, following the Biblical text, is not murder, when it comes to cases of rape, incest, or even psychological harm to the mother, even if such harm may result from severe financial distress, abortions have been permitted. To be sure, Judaism does not in any way allow abortion as a form of contraception and we dare never be cavalier about the issue. Most abortions are prohibited by Jewish law for the reasons outlined above. But the Rabbis take a much more sympathetic approach with leading authorities allowing abortions in the case of Tay Sachs babies and other genetically lethal diseases.
What emerges is a strong argument against viewing abortion as murder and the Biblical latitude to certainly allow abortions in extreme circumstances like rape, incest, and when the health of the mother is at risk.
My own belief is that abortion should not be a divisive legal issue and we should stop trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. Rather, abortion should be reduced by focusing instead on building up the institution of marriage. The Guttmacher Institute’s data that 85% of all abortions take place outside of marriage would have us address the subject not as a social wedge issue but by cultivating a culture that respects women, commits to marriage, and emphasizes the intimate nature of sex over its recreational dimension.
About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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