Commentary Religion

The Right to An Abortion As a Jewish Moral Value

Bonnie Margulis

The Jewish moral imperative of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – makes safeguarding reproductive rights a vital Jewish moral value.

The Jewish community is deeply concerned about the effects of an article published and syndicated last week about a Jewish crisis pregnancy group called In Shifra’s Arms—actually, it’s a website that offers a variety of services to dissuade Jewish women from having an abortion. This group is an anomaly – the only known Jewish service of its kind – yet the article suggests it reflects a standard view in Judaism. Speaking from the perspective of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, we need to speak out lest this article contribute to the further erosion of the reproductive rights of all of us.

The Jewish moral imperative of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – makes safeguarding reproductive rights a vital Jewish moral value.

But, what makes reproductive choice specifically a Jewish issue? There are three major Jewish teachings that make it clear that the Jewish community cannot be silent on issues of reproductive freedom.

The first is the explicit Jewish teaching on the issue of abortion. The Mishnah teaches us, in Oholot 7.6:

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If a woman has (life-threatening) difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. Once its head has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another.

Rabbinic commentators and legalists throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times agree that therapeutic abortion is not only warranted, it is actually mandated in Jewish law in cases where the woman’s life is at stake. For while we greatly value the potential life of the fetus, it cannot take precedence over the existing life of the woman.

Of course, some authorities come down on the side of strict interpretation, and would limit abortion to only the gravest of situations. But others are more lenient, and allow abortions in cases of physical or even psychological harm to the woman, and the interpretations of “harm” vary widely. As Rabbi Moses Sofer, the 19th century scholar, wrote, “No woman is required to build up the world by destroying herself.”

The second major issue of vital importance to the American Jewish community is the integrity of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and freedom from government interference. This one sentence in the United States Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” has been the foundation for the success of the Jewish community in this country. Without this guarantee, we would be mere guests in this country, as we have been in so many other countries throughout our history, living at the sufferance of the rulers and of our neighbors.

This guarantee is eroded by the Religious Right’s efforts to have their narrow view of when life begins become the law of the land. Judaism has no consensus on when life begins. Indeed, in Judaism’s attitudes toward life-threatening pregnancy, it seems clear that the fetus is only considered potential life, not actual life. Attempts by the Religious Right to enshrine in law ideas about when life begins, or about the morality of abortion, threaten to strip away once and for all our right as Jews to believe and practice our own religious teachings.

Finally, because we are talking about so much more than abortion, because we are talking about the social and economic imbalances and injustice in our society that both makes abortion necessary and so often makes it inaccessible to those who need it, I believe we are commanded by God, the prophets and our own moral consciences to speak out to ensure justice and freedom of choice for all women everywhere.

Most mitzvot are to be fulfilled as the occasion arises. There are only two instances where we are actively enjoined to seek out opportunities to fulfill a particular commandment. They are “Seek peace and pursue it” and “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” When Jews advocate for reproductive freedom, we are pursuing justice for women and seeking peace among the diverse religious communities of this country. And this is truly holy work.

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