Question: Does halacha agree with the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade permitting women to have abortions?
Answer: In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court ruled that women have the right to terminate an embryo or fetus in them during the first trimester of pregnancy. It further ruled that women are under no requirement to provide a compelling medical (or non-medical) reason to abort.
Jewish law disagrees. Abortion on demand is simply prohibited. But what about special situations? Let us discuss some of them.
1. If a woman’s life is in jeopardy, we may terminate the life of the fetus to save the mother (Ohalot 7:6).
2. If there is something wrong with the fetus, some rabbis permit aborting; others do not. Rav Moshe Feinstein, for example, rules that it is forbidden, arguing that defective children have a right to live. Accordingly, he prohibits aborting a Tay-Sachs child. (See “Aborting A Jewish Fetus,” Kuntras L’Torah V’Hora’a, choveret 7, p.9, Elul 5737.)
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg (Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, vol.13:102), on the other hand, felt that the ramifications of giving birth to a Tay-Sachs child are so severe – the child has stunted physical and mental development and inevitably dies by age four or so – that aborting is permitted until the seventh month of pregnancy.
3. May a woman who was raped abort her pregnancy? Rav Benzion Uziel (Mishpatai Uziel, vol.III, Choshen Mishpat, 46) and Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook ruled that she may in order to protect herself from shame and humiliation
4. May a mamzer fetus or one conceived out of wedlock be aborted? Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that it may not. Rav Uziel rules that it may be aborted to avoid shame. Rav Yaakov Emden (She’elat Yavitz 1:43) rules that one may abort a mamzer fetus (one conceived through adultery) but not a fetus conceived out of wedlock since no halachic stigma will be attached to such a fetus should it be born.
5. In Nazi concentration camps, pregnant women were often automatically killed. Were such women permitted to abort their pregnancies? Rabbi Efraim Oshry ruled that they were.
6. May an abortion be performed to prevent a nervous breakdown or the development of mental problems in the mother? Those rabbis that deem shame to a mother as a reason to permit abortions are lenient in regards to mental problems as well. Those rabbis who prohibit abortions even in cases of shame would not consider the possibility of mental problems developing to be reason to abort.