One thing I have always appreciated about Judaism is its nuance. Few situations are black and white in halacha; they are as complex and winding and varied as the circumstances of our lives themselves. I still remember studying a teshuvah in high school about whether or not a pair of conjoined twins could be surgically separated, even though the surgery would likely lead to the death of one of the children. The answer, in this case, was yes, because the twins’ shared heart was primarily in one of their tiny bodies, one of them already equipped for life, the other less so.
How did the rabbis come to this heart-wrenching decision? They looked at an episode in the Talmud centuries before, about a city under siege, faced with an impossible choice. The enemy ordered the city’s inhabitants to either give up ten citizens for death or the entire city would be slaughtered. The city’s leaders agonized, could they do it? What was the moral outcome here? How could they make this unimaginable choice? In the end, the result came down to the particular circumstances. If the city leaders had to select ten random people, they were not allowed to do so, even at enormous cost. But if the order was for a specific ten people, the city was allowed to hand them over – they were already marked for death. The conjoined twins were a new iteration of an old problem, in which mere mortals have to make decisions only G-d Himself should bear.
I recall reading this response and imagining the small, fragile babies in my mind, the agony of the parents, the horror of having to make such a harrowing decision. But I felt strangely comforted as well, knowing that if I ever found myself in a dark corridor of life, having to make an unmakeable choice, I wouldn’t do so alone. I would have brilliant minds with me, I would have the weight of thousands of years of Jewish tradition, forged in human suffering, behind me. I would have the solace of knowing I was not the first to struggle, and would not be the last.
In the days since the Supreme Court draft overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked, my social media feeds have been flooded with memes. “He who hath not a uterus shall shuteth the heck up.” “Funny how a generation that can tear babies from limb to limb in the womb cries when you get their pronoun wrong.” Given the heat of this precipitous moment, fueled by all the frustration and rage these last years have incited in all of us, these reactions are unsurprising. And yet, none of them contain the whole, holy truth.
As someone who has struggled for many years with infertility, I know a bit about the preciousness of life. I have been blessed to experience, four times over, the moment when the theoretical child that has been growing in your belly looks up at you, blinking, and leans against your heart, and you think that same heart might just swell right out of your chest, swollen with awe and joy. The idea of ending a young, precious life, is devastating to contemplate.
And I have been in this chaotic, wonderful, terrible world long enough to know that things are rarely as simple as they seem. Often, we think of abortion in the stereotypical sense: Teen Mom episodes, high schoolers getting pregnant, a cavalier approach to the creation, and ending, of human life. But the face of abortion is not always what we think it is.
I know what it’s like to walk into an ultrasound room and be faced with bad news. Thankfully, it turned out very quickly to be a false alarm – but for families around the world, it’s not. Each year, thousands of babies are diagnosed with birth defects in utero, some of them with illnesses that will certainly lead to stillbirths or early deaths. Other mothers are faced with their own health crises, and must make devastating decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy or pursue cancer treatment instead. That choice is often a matter of life and death.
Still other women become pregnant after suffering rape or through incest, their pregnancies a continuation of the trauma they are battling to overcome. And that’s not including the mothers battling mental health challenges that are worsened through pregnancy, or the mothers who fear that they lack the emotional resources to care for another child, and that the results of being overtaxed in this way might be catastrophic.
Abortion is not always what we think it is.
So what do I want? Whose side am I on? Which memes am I posting?
What I dream of, most of all, is a world where I have exactly what comforted me years ago – the opportunity to make the most heartbreaking, soul-impacting decisions of my life with the guidance of people that I trust, and with Jewish law to buoy me through the chaos of the crisis. To be bound not by the defined terms of the legislature or evangelical values but by my own faith and the Torah’s moral tradition. To have these deeply sensitive and variable situations handled specifically, rather than by broad strokes that leave too many victims. It’s a funny thing, to want so badly what you currently have – but are on the verge of losing.
Because if there’s anything we all know about life, is that it’s far from simple. So are all of us. And so is this issue.