A great deal of misinformation has been shared regarding abortion, much of it coming, of course, in the wake of a leaked draft from the Supreme Court suggesting it may soon overturn Roe v. Wade. But everything we have heard about supposed wholesale bans, or lack of concern for the life of the mother, pales in comparison to both the quantity and severity of obviously wrong pronouncements from those claiming a Jewish perspective. One notable organization summed up a common position by stating, “Judaism permits abortion. Full stop.” Few things have been said about Judaism by purported adherents that are more clearly untrue.
The Jewish Bible’s position on life is unambiguous — and emphatically “pro-life.” The Torah identifies human life as a soul placed (breathed) within a body by God Himself [Gen. 2:7]. Throughout history, Judaism has opposed murder, child sacrifice and, with only modest exceptions, abortion. It is due to the Torah’s influence that civilized Western society does not accept infanticide as a method of family planning, or regard throwing dissidents to the lions as entertainment.
One who claims that fetal life is not precious to Judaism must not have read the Torah or Prophets, or studied our Oral Law. Rebecca is told not only that she is carrying twins, but that they have distinct natures and characters that explain their behavior in utero [Genesis 25:23]. Jeremiah is told that “Before I placed you in the womb I knew you, before you left the uterus I sanctified you, I appointed you a prophet to the nations” [Jeremiah 1:5].
And in the Mishnah [Ohalos 7:6], we are taught that the reason one must save a mother even at the expense of her child is “because her life precedes his life.” Some flagrantly misrepresent this as saying that the fetus is not yet considered alive, but the text itself explicitly says otherwise.
Jewish law also demands that the Sabbath be violated in order to save a fetal life. Given that lifesaving activity is the only situation in which Sabbath restrictions are set aside, were a fetus not considered alive this would be prohibited, not required.
Advocates must confront the truth: According to Judaism, abortion, entailing a loss of human life, is an unmitigated tragedy. Even the most permissive opinions reserve abortion for extreme situations that no woman should ever experience. The idea that abortion should be regarded as simply a “choice,” or a routine health care decision when the mother’s health is not abnormally threatened by carrying the child to term, is anathema to our beliefs.
This also, interestingly enough, coincides with all that the medical community has learned about fetal life since 1973. Today we know, for example, that newborn babies respond not only to their mothers’ heartbeats, but to the sound of their parents’ voices. While in utero, babies suck their thumbs for comfort, and even learn music. It is simply nonsensical to argue that a thinking, listening baby is not alive.
Those Jews who ignore our ritual laws, eating pork and treating Saturday like a normal day, rarely insist that the relevant laws were misread or misunderstood. They simply admit they do not follow these laws. But recognizing the Torah’s authority over moral judgments, those wishing to behave in contravention of its ethical precepts often devise tendentious readings to turn prohibited acts into “Jewish values.” Much as we can sympathize with the psychological need behind such efforts, we cannot minimize the inestimable value the Torah places upon all human life, including that of those as yet unborn.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is managing director of the Coalition for Jewish Values. Follow him @ymenken.