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Judaism & the Wholesale Ban on Abortion

It has now been 35 years since the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade. By a margin of 7-2 the court ruled that abortion was a private matter and that privacy was a constitutionally protected right. The ruling sparked massive protests that to this day have not ceased. In recent years, many in the Jewish world have joined hands with certain Christian groups in an attempt to block women from having the right to an abortion. Rabbi Shafran and his organization, Agudath Israel, lament those in the Jewish world who have constantly defended a women’s right to choose:
“Even more troubling to me as a Jew than the misunderstandings of the facts is that a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople have asserted that Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the recently upheld law. The president of Hadassah [Nancy Falchuk], to take one example, has baldly stated that the law “undermines Jewish values. She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed and, in turn, misinform.”
To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. That is why while Agudath Israel opposes Roe v. Wade’s effective “abortion on demand,” it has not favored–and would never favor–a wholesale ban on abortion.


While the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother’s health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited “mother’s right” to “make her own reproductive choices” — the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets.
To some degree, Rabbi Shafran is correct about his reading of Jewish law. I would agree with Rabbi Shafran that partial birth or late term abortions should be curtailed. But I think he downplays the uniqueness of and balance of the Jewish position on this issue. It neither privileges life or death, but rather the fullness of living. Judaism really stands in between both extremes of this debate. That is, it respects both the quantity as well as the quality of one’s life; it looks at health beyond mere physical wellness but also asks about the mother’s emotional wellbeing.
Furthermore, I am still not sure how and why Rabbi Shafran equates halakha (Jewish law) with state law. Since when is Hashem the posek (legal decisor) for Hindus living in Arkansas? More importantly, Rabbi Shafran ignores that there is more to Judaism than merely law. Jewish law for last two thousand years has never been identified with the same police force and coercive apparatus associated with state law.
In opposition to Rabbi Shafran’s view of Jewish law stands the Rambam (Maimonides). According to Maimonides in his book on repentance the lynchpin of Jewish law is the freedom to choose. In his laws of repentance (4:3) Maimonides writes:


This matter [of there being a free will] is a very important principle, and is a the foundation of the Torah and meritorious deeds, as it is written, “See, I have set before you on this day life and good, and death and evil”. It is also written, “Behold, I set before you on this day a blessing and a curse”. This is to say that one has the free will to do what one wants, whether it is good or bad. It is for this reason that it is written, “O that there were such a heart in them”, i.e. the Creator does not force or decree upon anybody to do good or bad, but lets them choose.

Maimonides goes evewn further aguing that without unfettered free will one can never truely ever fully repent, (2:1).


“Repentance is completed when an opportunity to commit one’s original transgression again arises but one doesn’t and repents instead, but not if the reason for repenting was that someone was watching or because of physical weakness. For example, if one copulated in sin with one’s wife, and then later one had another opportunity to do it again but didn’t, then even though one may still love her and she may be in perfect physical health and was even in the same country [when the opportunity arose], one has repented completely.”

Without the ability to choose, according to Maimonides, all of Torah would be meaningless because we all would be mere robots. The metaphysical weight granted to mitzvot (good deeds) is relative to the amount of choice surrounding the action. At its core, Jewish law derives its meaning precisely from peoples’ ability to choose and to bear the responsibility of those choices.

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Rabbi Gene Roper

posted January 29, 2008 at 2:34 pm

An individuals view, if a woman or a couple do not want pregnancy, then they should refrain from the act that generates pregnancy. The exception being a forced act. And then the Torah is clear.
Rabbi Gene

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Scott R.

posted January 29, 2008 at 7:15 pm

And in the real world?

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Susan Crittenden

posted January 30, 2008 at 2:45 am

Doesn’t abortion cause the mother a huge amount of remorse and regret years later, at least with some women? The idea of personal freedom is only half the picture; the other half is being aware of how to use it gracefully and knowing what you’re doing for the long term as well as the short.

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Billie Berman

posted January 30, 2008 at 12:15 pm

As a nurse practitioner, for over 15 years and a nurse for over 35 years, I have observed that only a few women have used abortion as birth control. Women usually do not use their insurance to obtain abortions and still pay cash for the proceedure and go to Family Planning Clinics for assistance. For the most part, women that have approached me to seek assistance for abortion have financial difficulties and are unable to support a child and/or their male counterparts are for some reason unsupportive of having a child and/or they have medical problems which will not support a pregnancy and/or mental health problems which require medications that most likely will cause birth defects to the fetus.
Abstension from sexual intercourse is certainly a value of those who oppose abortion and they themselves may not practice abstension and end up having children which were not planned. Planning a family is not the easiest things to do and we certainly must help support women who choose to have children and adopt them and/or choose to abort and try to manage their lives as best they can. I agree that abortion can cause depression in women and or post traumatic stress as we do not forget feelings associated with life experiences.
We must be thoughtful in our approach to helping women and young girls who are in the situation of pregnancy because it is not always planned. I recently saw the movie Juno and was touched by the sensitivity of the family and the peers of Juno even though it seemed quite unrealistic. In these times teens may be more open than we think to helping one another during these situations.

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posted January 30, 2008 at 2:37 pm

One of the practical effect of Roe v Wade has been on the demographics of America:
1/ If all the aborted fetuses born since Roe v Wade in NY and CA had been born and grown up in those states Bush would have lost in 2000 regardless of what happened in FL.
2/ The huge growth in social conservatism in America has come about partly (ironically) because of Roe v Wade. Those religious people who are having huge families (ie no abortions) are becoming a larger percent of the population, while those more socially liberal people who tend to have more abortions are obviously becoming a smaller part of the population.
The more abortions, the more social conservatives. Its not a specifically Jewish law but the law of unintended consequences is working.

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Scott R.

posted January 30, 2008 at 6:02 pm

2/ The huge growth in social conservatism in America has come about partly (ironically) because of Roe v Wade. Those religious people who are having huge families (ie no abortions) are becoming a larger percent of the population, while those more socially liberal people who tend to have more abortions are obviously becoming a smaller part of the population.
Your grasp of logic is truly pathetic. Liberals don’t have more abortion. Liberals use birth control. People cannot be forced to have children.
Poor people have abortions, generally. When this country gets its head out of its a$$ and decides to actually help the poor, the abortion rates will decline dramatically.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 1:00 pm

How many abortion centers in Kiryas Yoel? The people there aren’t rich, in fact they are poor. Since social conservatives generally don’t abort who then does?

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posted January 31, 2008 at 1:20 pm

As a Jewish woman who has had an abortion and feel strongly about the issue, I must weigh in here. I feel very little remorse over my decision. At the time I was pregnant, I did not have the financial ability to raise a child, nor did I have a good atmosphere in which to raise a child. I was not married and my boyfriend at the time did not want children. I had an abortion about 6 weeks into my pregnancy and feel that it was the right time.
My family and friends were all very supportive of my decision and my recovery period is oddly one of my fondest memories! I was surrounded by loving and compassionate people who kept me laughing much of the time.
However, the procedure itself was one of the most physically painful things that has ever happened to me. I could swear that I was not actually given anasthesia, even though I was told I was getting it. I feel now that I was being punished by the clinic I went to.
Had I not had that abortion, I believe that I would not now have a moderately successful business, and I believe that I would not be living in the relative comfort which I now enjoy with a helpful and practical type of husband.
In addition, I believe that many of the woes of the world can be traced to over-population. This earth cannot support many more human beings. I feel justified in not adding to the over population problem. I try to nurture the earth whenever possible. It is truly the face of g-d.
I am only one person and this is my personal experience. Take it for what you will.

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posted January 31, 2008 at 1:46 pm

You don’t mention ever having children after the abortion, did you?
Also, though it can bring shame and inconvenience as well as complexity emotionally, the option to carry the child to term and give it up was not mentioned. Was it considered?

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Michael Serota

posted January 31, 2008 at 10:18 pm

I know God gave me life.
Although I love my biological parents, my spirit was not created by conception, but by God.
Since God gave me and all of us life, and conception did not, all true believers in God, have no reason to be against abortion, but must be

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posted February 1, 2008 at 3:04 pm

Shalom Aleichem
“Since when is Hashem the posek (legal decisor) for Hindus living in Arkansas?”
Probably about the same time He became Judge of the world. Last I checked Hindus in Arkansas were part of it. Or maybe HaShem is merely the Unique god of the Jews among the Elohim and not Echad? To the extent a Hindu chooses to live according to the life of Torah, HaShem will bless him and to the extent he chooses the death/curse of not following, HaShem will not bless him. I suspect an akum typically chooses against Torah and is judged accordingly.
Nurse Billie, please uses proper English when referring to “young girls”, not derogatory propaganda. Girl = 1) a female who has not reached puberty and 2) an unmarried young woman (probably derogatory). I see reference to (2) as a “young girl” even more derogatory than “girl”. I believe proper use of words will go a long way in addressing social ills.
So Michael, I interpret your statement to mean that killing a body is not the same as taking a life – which is spirit. So if I, being a true believer in God, Choose to kill your body without hatred, lying in wait and using a weapon but with bare hands, maybe HaShem would even find me not guilty of murder and my actions would be moral???
But then since abortion, save for the rare instances of “self defense” involves those three aspects: hatred (by Dr. if not mother), lying in wait and weapons, might I even be more moral to kill in my example than one who performs an abortion?
Isn’t this the same sort of thinking the Rabbis teach lead to Esau’s rejection of Torah?

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posted February 5, 2008 at 6:36 pm

It is difficult for a man to understand the stress a woman goes through before deciding to terminate a baby that in relative innocence has just begun its journey of life, but by believing that life begins at conception, it is regardless of where it is, a life that should be allowed to proceed. It is said, that the man is the giver of life, and the woman is the nurturer. Should not the abortion decision be a mutual decision? What power a woman has with the ability to terminate a mans offspring without consent. Pregnancy, is a two person event, and if it is not wanted, both should be strong enough to reisist before conception. If not, why not support the life that has been started? Each life has unique value to the creator. To presume that we have more knowledge than the creator is not part of our granted rights. We should think carefully about what we are doing. However, having said that, If the mothers life is in jeopardy, I believe the mother’s life should take precidence. It is not true, that all aborted children were worthless. We do not have the ability to forsee the plans laid for them in the infinite scheme of things.

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posted June 4, 2008 at 8:42 am

why don’t all these oh so concerned men consider that every time they fornicate there is a chance of conception. Is it passable to have sex but not be responsible for the possible results? I suppose it is too much to ask to “keep it in your pants” until you are ready to care for the end result of your fun pastime or declaration of love or what ever you care to call it?

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posted March 13, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Mr. Stern completely misunderstands Maimonides. Maimonides is arguing that human beings have free will, and that is why they are held responsible for their actions. Elsewhere, Maimonides rules: “A gentile who slays any soul, even a fetus in its mother’s womb, should be executed in retribution for its death.” (Hilchos Melachim 9:4)

Mr. Stern portrays Maimonides as saying, “People have the right to choose” when really Maimonides is saying “People have the *ability* to choose, and they are held accountable for their choices.”

In short, Mr. Stern’s interpretation of Maimonides is mistaken at best, misleading at worst.

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