My religion teaches that abortion is murder, and in my heart I agree. I believe that life begins at the moment of conception and that eliminating a fetus is the same as eliminating any life. Yet part of me hesitates when it comes to rape. I have a gut feeling that a rape victim should have the right to terminate her pregnancy. But to be logically consistent, murder is murder. How can I reconcile these feelings?
As long as you regard abortion as murder, you have indeed boxed yourself into a position that will forbid a raped woman from having an abortion. For as sympathetic as you might be to her plight, why should the fact of her having been violated entitle her to "murder" the fetus who, after all, played no role in her rape?
My view on abortion is shaped in large measure by the Jewish tradition, which, while strongly limiting the occasions in which it regards abortion as permissible (for example, instances in which the mother's physical or mental well-being is imperiled), categorically rejects the notion of abortion as murder. The classic case in Jewish law is one discussed in the Torah, the first five books of Moses. Exodus 21:22-23 rules that if two men are in combat with one another and one kills the pregnant wife of his opponent, he, the killer, is executed. But, if instead of killing the wife, he wounds her and causes her pregnancy to be aborted, "the assailant shall be fined." As this passage makes clear, whatever value the fetus has, the Hebrew Bible does not grant it the status of human life. If it did, the punishment for killing the fetus would not be a monetary fine, but the same as that for killing the woman--death. Therefore, according to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament), abortion definitely is not murder.
It seems to me that the Hebrew Bible's reasoning corresponds with human experience. Thus, most parents are devastated--and the devastation can well last their entire lives--if a child of theirs dies. And while it is true that a couple suffers great anguish when the woman miscarries, I have never heard of an instance in which the anguish suffered when a fetus died was the same as when a child died.
Similarly, when a woman miscarries late in a pregnancy, the parents do not hold a funeral service. As social philosopher and political conservative Robert Nisbet has noted: "[T]here is no record of any religion, including Christianity, ever pronouncing an accidental miscarriage as a death to be commemorated in prayer and ritual." ("Prejudices")
As noted earlier, I believe that endangerment of the mother's mental well-being should be an important factor in determining whether or not she should abort. With regard to a rape victim, it seems to me very cruel and destructive to force a woman to carry in her body the seed of the man who so violated her and who might well be the person she (justifiably) hates most in the world. A 19th-century rabbi, Yehuda Perilman, ruled that a raped woman has the right to abort because, unlike "mother earth," she need not nurture seed planted within her against her will; indeed, she may "uproot" seed illegally sown. I find the rabbi's reasoning persuasive.
If you regard abortion as murder, then of course your reasoning forces you to conclude that women who have been violated must carry inside them their violator's baby. But if that strikes you as inhuman, then maybe it is worth reconsidering whether or not abortion should be regarded as murder. Perhaps you should expand your framework and perspective and conclude that abortion is, on occasion, a necessary evil.
Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.