Judaism Doesn’t Endorse Abortion. But It Can’t Endorse the GOP Platform Either

Judaism is being co-opted into the abortion debate by both the right-to-life and right-to-choose factions, with predictably misleading results. But Orthodox Jews can’t feel truly comfortable in either camp.

Demonstrators on both sides of the abortion issue stand in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 20, 2016.
Alex Brandon, AP

With anti-abortion Indiana Governor Mike Pence the Republican candidate for vice president and the Democratic and Republican platforms offering more polarized planks on abortion than ever, the issue of “reproductive rights” is, once again, well, birthed into the glare.

Also in the limelight of late are some misleading assertions about Judaism’s attitude toward fetal life.

Back in March, Governor Pence signed a measure prohibiting women from obtaining abortions because of the race, gender, or disability of the fetus, like Down syndrome.  Met with howls of outrage from Planned Parenthood and similar groups, the legislation was blocked by a U.S. district judge.

For the first time, the 2016 Democratic platform says that the party will attempt to repeal bars on the use of federal funds for most kinds of abortion, and on foreign aid from being spent on abortion. The Republican platform, for its part, is expected to again call for a “human life” amendment to the Constitution, and legislation to ensure that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections of citizens apply to “unborn children” as well. Donald Trump has said he’ll push for pro-life candidates for the Supreme Court.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets his newly selected vice presidential running mate Mike Pence as he takes the stage during an event, July 16, 2016 in New York.
Drew Angerer, Getty Images/AFP

And then there’s the Jewish connection.  George Mason University adjunct professor of history and reproductive rights activist Andrea Barron recently asserted, in an op-ed for the Baltimore Sun, that the Jewish belief for millennia has been that “life begins at birth, not at conception.”

Barron insinuates that the Jewish religious tradition is thus accurately reflected in the stances of “Jewish organizations [that] have been staunch supporters of women’s reproductive rights.”  And what’s more, she adds, the “reproductive rights” she champions are “reflected in Israel, which has some of the world's most liberal abortion laws.”

“Even ultra-Orthodox Israeli men who want to control women’s behavior pay little attention to abortion, focusing instead on telling women to cover their bodies, not sing at public ceremonies and not sit next to Orthodox men on buses or airplanes,” writes the even-keeled, objective adjunct professor. 

Barron doesn’t care to explore the facts that a) Israeli civil and criminal law and Jewish religious law are separate entities, b) halakha governs the behavior of men and women equally, and c) her disdain for haredim really has nothing to do with abortion.

And, most pertinently, d) halakha, in no uncertain terms, forbids abortion in the vast majority of cases.  To be sure, the professor is correct that a fetus is not the equivalent of a born life.  But jumping from that to the conclusion that Jewish tradition sanctions abortion on demand – the notion that goes by the aliases “choice” and “rights” – is a leap even Evel Knievel would never have dared.

Barron’s partner in distortion is Reform Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner.  He recently contended that “Jewish tradition teaches the importance of a woman’s ability to make her own healthcare decisions,” claiming that no less an authority than Maimonides held that ‘Women are commanded to care for the health and well-being of their bodies above all else.’”

Whether any such statement in fact exists in Maimonides’ writings (the rabbi offered no citation), what the famed codifier of Jewish law does clearly offer (for examples, in Hilchot Rotzei’ach, 1:9 and Hilchot Melachim, 9:4) is a clear rejection of the idea that a woman, or man, can elect to abort a fetus as a matter of “choice.”

There are, to be sure, cases in which halakha permits, and even prescribes, the ending of a Jewish woman’s pregnancy, but those cases are not only rare but dependent entirely on halakhic judgments, not on “a woman’s ability to make her own healthcare decisions.” 

There is, in Judaism, no “right” to abortion.  Judaism is overwhelmingly about responsibilities, not rights. And both Jews and non-Jews, according to halakha, have responsibilities to protect fetuses.  There may be rare cases where those responsibilities are superseded by other concerns, but, put starkly, it is almost always Jewishly wrong to end even a potential life.

There is, of course, no reason for American law to follow the dictates of halakha. And if the choice in the United States were between the Roe v. Wade “whatever a woman wants” law of the land and totally criminalizing abortion, I, as an Orthodox Jew, would have to side with the permissive option, to allow for abortion in cases mandated by my faith. 

Ideally, though, I would like to see some middle path that permits abortions but limits them by promoting greater respect for fetal life.

And, at very least, I’d like to see the end of misinformation about Judaism’s take on the matter.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist for the American edition of Hamodia, blogs at www.rabbiavishafran.com  and serves as Agudath Israel of America’s director of public affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @RabbiAviShafran