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.