There is more than one religious view on abortion – here’s what Jewish texts say

Syndicated with permission of The Conversation

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey discusses a bill that would virtually outlaw abortion in the state. AP Photo/Blake Paterson

Alabama’s governor signed a bill recently that criminalizes nearly all abortions, threatening providers with a felony conviction and up to 99 years in prison.

It is one of numerous efforts across the United States to restrict access to abortion and challenge the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion nationwide.

Six states have recently passed legislation that limit abortions to approximately six weeks after the end of a woman’s last period, before many know they are pregnant. Although the laws have not yet taken effect and several have been blocked on constitutional grounds, if enacted they would prohibit most abortions once a doctor can hear rhythmic electrical impulses in the developing fetus.

Called “fetal heartbeat” bills, they generally refer to the fetus as an “unborn human individual.” It is a strategic choice, trying to establish fetal personhood, but it also reveals assumptions about human life beginning at conception that are based on particular Christian teachings.

Not all Christians agree, and diverse religious traditions have a great deal to say about this question that gets lost in the polarized “pro-life” or “pro-choice” debate. As an advocate of reproductive rights, I have taken a side. Yet as a scholar of Jewish Studies, I appreciate how rabbinic sources grapple with the complexity of the issue and offer multiple perspectives.

What Jewish texts say

Traditional Jewish practice is based on careful reading of biblical and rabbinic teachings. The process yields “halakha,” generally translated as “Jewish law” but deriving from the Hebrew root for walking a path.

Even though many Jews do not feel bound by “halakha,” the value it attaches to ongoing study and reasoned argument fundamentally shapes Jewish thought.

The majority of foundational Jewish texts assert that a fetus does not attain the status of personhood until birth.

Although the Hebrew Bible does not mention abortion, it does talk about miscarriage in Exodus 21:22-25. It imagines the case of men fighting, injuring a pregnant woman in the process. If she miscarries but suffers no additional injury, the penalty is a fine.

Since the death of a person would be murder or manslaughter, and carry a different penalty, most rabbinic sources deduce from these verses that a fetus has a different status.

An early, authoritative rabbinic work, the Mishnah, discusses the question of a woman in distress during labor. If her life is at risk, the fetus must be destroyed to save her. Once its head starts to emerge from the birth canal, however, it becomes a human life, or “nefesh.” At that point, according to Jewish law, one must try to save both mother and child. It prohibits setting aside one life for the sake of another.

Although this passage reinforces the idea that a fetus is not yet a human life, some orthodox authorities allow abortion only when the mother’s life is at risk.

Other Jewish scholars point to a different Mishnah passage that envisions the case of a pregnant woman sentenced to death. The execution would not be delayed unless she has already gone into labor.

Jewish sources generally see the fetus as part of the mother. User:Magister Scienta, CC BY

In the Talmud, an extensive collection of teachings building on the Mishnah, the rabbis suggest that the ruling is obvious: the fetus is part of her body. It also records an opinion that the fetus should be aborted before the sentence is carried out, so that the woman does not suffer further shame.

Later commentators mention partial discharge of the fetus brought on by the execution as an example – but the passage’s focus on the needs of the mother can also broaden the circumstances for allowing abortion.

Making space for divergent opinions

These teachings represent only a small fraction of Jewish interpretations. To discover “what Judaism says” about abortion, the standard approach is to study a variety of contrasting texts that explore diverse perspectives.

Over the centuries, rabbis have addressed cases related to potentially deformed fetuses, pregnancy as the result of rape or adultery, and other heart-wrenching decisions that women and families have faced.

In contemporary Jewish debate there are stringent opinions adopting the attitude that abortion is homicide – thus permissible only to save the mother’s life. And there are other lenient interpretations broadly expanding justifications based on women’s well-being.

Yet the former usually cite contrary opinions, or even refer a questioner to inquire elsewhere. The latter still emphasize Judaism’s profound reverence for life.

According to the 2017 Pew survey, 83% of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. All the non-orthodox movements have statements supporting reproductive rights, and even ultra-orthodox leaders have resisted anti-abortion measures that do not allow religious exceptions.

This broad support, I argue, reveals the Jewish commitment to the separation of religion and state in the U.S., and a reluctance to legislate moral questions for everyone when there is much room for debate.

There is more than one religious view on abortion.

The Conversation

Rachel Mikva has contributed to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Planned Parenthood.

Source: The Conversation

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Patricia is the founder and editor of Little Bytes News, a former elementary teacher, radio talk show host, political activist and political blogger. In 2012, Patricia was nominated one of “Circle of Moms” top 25 political bloggers.

4 thoughts on “There is more than one religious view on abortion – here’s what Jewish texts say

  • May 22, 2019 at 9:46 am

    It is important to understand the context of “Jewish texts” or “tradition”. These are euphemisms for the Pharisaical Talmud which is the cornerstone of Judaism, which hold the Rabbinical authority above the actual word of God. What God actually says in Ex 21: “If there is no fatality”. specific to translation to English is the meaning, “to bring her children out”, which EVERY version indicates a miscarriage. Delivering a still born is hard to “reposition” as not being a fatality. Jesus railed against these man-interpreted Talmudic doctrines such that they have their own name “Takanot”. These are the primary argument of the New Testament, against “the weight of the law”, vs Jesus’ own word in Mt 5 with regard to the “Law”. Notice the distinction that in Most English New Testaments, the Talmud is referred to as a lower-case “law” vs Torah as upper-case “Law”, which Jesus fully supported.

    • May 22, 2019 at 11:51 am

      Thanks for your comment David. I’m not an expert in Jewish law but have heard the Torah is what most Jews abide by. Are you saying a stillborn is a miscarriage but not a death of a child according to Jewish law? But an abortion is a fatality because the baby is killed in order to bring the baby out?

      • May 22, 2019 at 4:02 pm

        Actually the Talmud is what most Jews abide by. The article sites that a miscarriage does not qualify as a fatality, alluding not a person until birth. The Torah (the first 5 books of the Christian Bible) does not refer to abortion. A pregnant woman who is injured and induced labor, who delivers a live birth results in a fine. Any fatalities, “is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life” – NASB. It is disingenuous to presuppose that a fetus couldn’t be alive and therefore can’t be considered a fatality. Ex:21:23 is pretty explicit.. who else would be miscarried and be a fatality?

        Talmudists have weird arguments justifying Takanot over Torah, but I suppose most religious doctrines have the same practice. As I posted to you about the article about the alignment of Passover and Good Friday “Holiest of holy days for only 4th time in a century Passover and Good Friday coincide”, the Biblical start of the year and month is the sighting of the new moon (waxing crescent) when the barley is ready for harvest (Abib). Talmudic Judaism, however, uses a calculation which is often off by a few days. Considering that Israel has its land back and can step outside to sight the moon, they continue to use the calculation, misapplying the dates of the Leviticus 23 feasts. According to a Rabbi associated with, they cite a takanot (not Torah) which interprets Gen 49:1 to imply that unity of the Jews takes precedence over obedience to God (inspection you’ll see ignoring Torah has nothing to do with the Unity required for redemption). The “coincidence article” reflects the calculated date, rather than the moon sighting. It is unfortunate that so much of the New Testament is interpreted through Talmudic resources (Essentially the only Hebrew authorities available to the translators). Jesus however recognized the affect of the Pharisees, not only mentioning that the Torah was still in affect (Mt 5:17-19) but also the importance of finding and returning wayward Israel back to obedience (Mt 10:6 “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and Mt 15:24 “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”)

        Even Hebrews 8 is a direct quote of Jeremiah 31- in both cases speaking to Israel. Many religions attempt to replace Israel, even limiting the Whole Nation to only the descendents of Judah. Exodus 12:48 is the clause where any sojourner can be joined to Israel as a NATIVE BORN.

        • May 22, 2019 at 8:21 pm

          Interesting, thanks for sharing your knowledge of this topic. As a Christian, I believe in the commandment thou shalt not kill… and as a matter of common sense and decency I do not believe in killing an innocent human being, regardless of what stage of life they are in. I think a life should be taken for a life but understand some women are forced into abortion because of fear or threats. Punishing Dr’s is one way of limiting abortions, but sadly there will always be those who violate the law and will still provide abortions.


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