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Why Do We Let Abortions Become a ‘Leftist’ Issue?

In considering the rights of the unborn child versus the mother's, Jewish law sides with the viable life—mother, against the potential life—fetus.
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Photo Credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90

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JTA’s Ron Kampeas reported Thursday, under the headline “Liberal Jewish groups unleash on doomed abortion bill,” that liberal (meaning left-wing) Jewish groups “fired a verbal barrage against a restrictive abortion bill passed by the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives, calling it ‘egregious,’ ‘outrageous,’ ‘an affront,’ and ‘deeply disappointing.’

According to Kampeas, the bill, which passed the House last Tuesday in a 228-196 vote, would ban abortions after 20 weeks, a time when the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), says “the fetus feels pain.”

“We know that yesterday’s vote was symbolic, since the Senate will not take up the bill and the president has said he would veto it,” Barbara Weinstein, the director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action, said in a statement. “Yet the symbolism of the bill’s House passage is indeed important, demonstrating the unfortunate reality that women’s reproductive rights remain at risk.”

According to the National Council of Jewish Women, the bill “imposes one particular set of religious beliefs on the entire nation, and denies women the ability to make their own decisions about their health and their future without political interference.”

Why do we, observant Jews, leave the talking on the abortion issue to the Reform? Why do we create the impression—with the absence of prestigious, Orthodox Jewish voices on the halacha regarding abortions—that our tradition is synonymous with the Christian teachings on the same issue?

Jewish law does set a point in the gestation, following which the fetus becomes viable – 40 days. Past that period, as Menachem Elon—who authored the Encyclopedia Judaica article on abortion—put it: “…abortion, although prohibited, does not constitute murder (Tos., Sanh. 59a; Hul. 33a).”

In fact, in considering the rights of the unborn child versus the mother’s, Jewish law sides with the viable life—mother, against the potential life—fetus. Therefore, as Rashi comments, on Sanhedrin 72b: “Regarding a woman having a difficult birth which threatens her life, the midwife may insert her hand and cut up the fetus and extract it in pieces, because as long as it hasn’t come out into the world it is not considered a living being and one may kill it to save its mother.”

Now, obviously, Jewish law does not promote abortion, nor even approve of it tacitly. All it says is that, under no circumstances, is it tantamount to murder, and that when the health of the mother is in conflict with the health of the unborn baby, we save the mother’s life at the expense of the fetus’s, even at the last minute of the third trimester. So long as the fetus has not taken its first breath, it does not have equal rights.

This is the core of our belief in the rabbinical permission to perform abortions. Not because the fetus isn’t a viable person until the 40th day of gestation, but because it is not a complete person until the very end of gestation. When it has taken its first breath it has become equal to its mother, two living human beings each with the right to life. In that state, if the fetus poses a life-danger to the mother, it is ruled a “rodef” or potential killer, and may be removed. Until it has completed its exit from the womb, even if it is stuck halfway, as long as it hasn’t taken a breath it’s still part of its mother, and, sadly, we would terminate its life to save the mother’s.

In other words, not only do the Rabbis permit late-term abortion, they actually base their entire understanding of the legal relationship between mother and fetus on the late-term conflict between those two lives, one which is fully realized and one which is still only potential. And in rabbinical law we always go with the life we have, not the life that might appear in the future.

We desperately need, at a time when the discussion over abortion appears to be between the religious, who are anti-abortion no matter what, and the secularists, who are pro-abortion, any time any place, an authoritative halachic voice that would teach the world our Rabbis’ excellent understanding of this painful issue.

Why do we concede the arena to hysterical voices from both sides?

The Rabbinical Council of America does have a fine, even eloquent position on abortions, dated 1990. I could not find a later statement. This one is unambiguous, for sure, but it doesn’t exactly constitute an attempt to be a guiding light to the unwashed masses:

Jun 1, 1990 – Abortion

The Rabbinical Council of America in Convention assembled Takes note of the different values of the many religious communities in America that are often at variance with one another, in the nature of a politically pluralistic society;

Is aware that the question of abortion is currently in the forefront of moral concerns in American society;

Proclaims that neither the position of “pro-life” nor the position of “pro-choice” is acceptable to Halacha;

Precludes the endorsement of legislative measures which would impede the appropriate application of Halacha;

Calls upon the total Jewish community to acknowledge that abortion is not an option, except in extreme circumstances and in consultation with proper Halachic authority.

I think it’s time for louder voices in support of sanity in the spirit of Jewish tradition on this issue, where the crazies have been running the show for quite some time now.

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About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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69 Responses to “Why Do We Let Abortions Become a ‘Leftist’ Issue?”

  1. Myriam Obadia says:

    OK, See all you superstitious naysayers? We told you this was what the Halacha said. It's in no way a good thing, but abortion -like divorce- is the only remedy in some circumstances. Now, just pray the choice isn't forced on anyone and comfort those who had to make it, instead of cursing them.

  2. Bridget Baker says:

    Well said, Muriel.

  3. Shira Louis Yashin says:

    In no way is abortion on demand allowed. It is only allowed to save the mother's life. Not to make the mother feel better, but to save her life. Meaning, her life would be in danger otherwise. Got it?

  4. If we base our position on commentary or emotion then there is no counter argument. If, however, we base our position on Torah we must consider that a fetus is a person and a nation. B'reishiet 25.

  5. If we base our position on commentary or emotion then there is no counter argument. If, however, we base our position on Torah we must consider that a fetus is a person and a nation. B'reishiet 25.

  6. Dawn Yonah says:

    Abortion is murdering your unborn child… That's a fact. Your explanation of "halacha" shows how we can easily not see the forest for the trees when trying to legally justify something we all know in our spirit is WRONG. An unfortunate case of a mother's life truly being in danger is extremely rare and should not mitigate our disgust with the "crime against humanity" that is abortion. I am truly saddened that it is so accepted in Israel – truly, the "innocent blood" cries out to HaShem and we pay for this crime in many unseen ways.

  7. Charlie Hall says:

    Thank you for your accurate statement of the traditional Jewish position on abortion.

  8. Charlie Hall says:

    Actually, many of the leading poskim of the 20th century are very lenient in practice, allowing an abortion when there is pretty much any threat to the mother, and also allowing an abortion when the fetus has a genetic defect.

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    Dawn,

    You need to improve your knowledge of Jewish teachings. Abortion is not treated by the Torah as murder and Yori has accurately presented how the Torah does treat abortion.

  10. Charlie Hall says:

    The entirety of the Jewish rabbinic tradition disagrees with you. You can make up stuff to justify your opinion but it isn't Judaism.

  11. She uses Rashi as a source. That source is only to save the life of the mother from imminent death. No other reason.

  12. Anonymous says:

    According to the Sefer Hachinuch, a gentile who kills a fetus is liable to the death penaly.

  13. THE Halakha is definitely PRO-LIFE. The ONLY accepted reason to kill the fetus is "if the fetus poses a life-danger to the mother, it… may be removed." There are some interpretations of the term "life-danger", but the principle is clear.

  14. Anonymous says:

    The problem is that "health of the mother" is often dumbed down to mean, "I don't want to take responsibility for going through this pregnancy and having this child, so I'm going to get rid of it."

  15. Sabra Feldman says:

    I see a misinterpretation or misrepresentation of halacha here. There is an enormous difference between what the Sages said and what the leftists in the US govt want in terms of late-term abortion. The Sages' definition applies to a drastic situation in which the midwife must decide to save the mother's life over the fetus's during labor. The sages definitely did NOT say, "if you decide late term that you do not want to have your baby, you can go to a clinic, have labor induced, and abort your baby."

  16. Sabra Feldman says:

    Actually, the way Dawn Yonah says it sums up the issue perfectly, much better than I could have done.

  17. Yori Yanover says:

    Michael Mostofsky · I'm not sure. Poskim have broadened the "Rodef" status to include damage that is less severe than outright death. But, without a doubt, we have no source in mainstream halacha that equates abortion with murder.

  18. Yori Yanover says:

    Sabra Feldman · I agree with you. But even as you describe it, there can be multiple interpretations of what "drastic" means, and what the "mother's life" means. And halacha provides for our poskim a lot of wiggle room.

  19. Charlie Hall says:

    Michael, Rashi is not the last word. Learn the positions of 20th century poskim.

  20. Charlie Hall says:

    That is actually in the Talmud. But also in the Talmud is the fact that nothing permitted to Jews is prohibited to non-Jews, so there would be no penalty when the mother's life is in danger, or in the other cases where contemporary poskim have permitted Jewish women to have abortions.

  21. Charlie Hall says:

    Many of the greatest poskim have permitted abortions when the fetus has a genetic defect, so your statement "ONLY accepted reason" is wrong.

  22. Charlie Hall says:

    Sabra, many poskim have permitted abortions in other cases. Rav Soloveitchik z'tz'l permitted aborting a Tay-Sachs fetus through the sixth month of pregnancy even when there was no danger to the mother.

  23. Charlie Hall says:

    Sabra, many poskim have permitted abortions in other cases. Rav Soloveitchik z'tz'l permitted aborting a Tay-Sachs fetus through the sixth month of pregnancy even when there was no danger to the mother.

  24. Charlie Hall says:

    Sabra, many poskim have permitted abortions in other cases. Rav Soloveitchik z'tz'l permitted aborting a Tay-Sachs fetus through the sixth month of pregnancy even when there was no danger to the mother.

  25. The vast majority of abortions that are performed are not performed because the life of the mother is at risk. The vast majority of abortions are abortions of convenience or abortions in pursuit of a one child policy such as in China. In those cases Jewish law is opposed to abortion. I am secular and I'm opposed to abortion unless it will save the mother or the fetus is a few cells.

  26. Sabra Feldman says:

    I understand your point of view, and I understand the situations when a late term abortion might be necessary. However, I do not agree with legislation that makes a late term abortion as accessible as chewing gum. I have always felt that abortion, as with all medical topics, must be handled on a case-by-case basis, but unfortunately, Big Govt feels that it must legislate via blanket laws, and the people if the US and other countries turn over their power to the govt to make such legislation. So, in that manner, I am neither in the pro-life nor pro-choice camps as defined by commonly prevailing American sentiment. Instead, I view abortion as a medical procedure that must be handled on a case by case basis — but there is no room for that type of thinking anymore, it seems. This happens to be a very personal issue for me as well.

  27. Amen to your good statement, "Abortion is not an option except in extreme circumstances", Thank you.

  28. Yori Yanover No the Halacha is very clear, the wiggle room that you talking about the leftists provides.

  29. Anonymous says:

    There are close to 50,000 abortions in Israel every year, many of which are because the mother has economic, not health, concerns. There is a wonderful organization in Jerusalem called Efrat, which provides support to pregnant women in distress. Go to http://www.friendsofefrat.org.

  30. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    Well I'm sure someone who likes "Hookers for Jesus" on Facebook is a solid authority on halacha, amIrite?

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