Dear Rabbi Fried,
It has always been my understanding that Orthodox Jews, unlike the view of progressive Judaism, are pro-life and share the Catholic view that abortions are strictly prohibited. On the other hand, I recently heard of a case of an Orthodox woman who was granted an OK to have an abortion. What is the Orthodox viewpoint?
Neither the standard interpretation of pro-life or pro-choice accurately describes the Torah viewpoint. (The Torah is most certainly “pro-life,” as the verse says “choose life,” and we value life over nearly all other values; even the most important of Torah laws are trumped by the slightest concern of danger to life. Only a few exceptions exist.)
With regard to abortion, however, the concept of pro-choice, which puts the decision of whether or not to discontinue a pregnancy in the hands of the mother, does not jibe with the Torah decision-making process. We will see why. The Catholic edict that one can never terminate a pregnancy even to save the life of the mother is equally at odds with traditional Torah thought and practice.
Jewishly, the question of abortion is a very complicated one, and partially depends upon the current stage of the pregnancy. Judaism considers the unnecessary termination of the life of a fetus to be murder, albeit a category of murder not punishable in a court of law (beit din). This applies from the 40th day after conception, since according to Jewish tradition the soul enters the body of the fetus on that day. From then and forward the fetus is deemed a fully living human being. Before the 40th day, according to most opinions, killing a fetus is a lesser transgression than actual murder, but a transgression nonetheless unless a number of criteria are fulfilled.
To say that a mother can, herself, decide matters of life and death for another human being based on her own rationales, convenience or other reasons would run contrary to the entire halachic process by which matters of life and death are decided. On the other hand, there are situations where the health or the life of the mother is sufficiently compromised by the fetus; this allows us, or requires us, to intervene. For example, the Talmud discusses the case of a woman put in danger of her life by her pregnancy and the ruling of the Mishnah to terminate that pregnancy in order to save the mother’s life. This is explained by the Talmud and Maimonides to be based upon a difference in the “level of life” experienced by the mother vis-à-vis the fetus. Although the fetus is considered a living person, the mother’s life (for reasons we don’t have space to cover in this column) is considered a “complete life” whereas the fetus’ life is only a “partial life”; consequently the mother’s life trumps that of the fetus and we perform an abortion. Once the head or the majority of the body of the fetus is presented, the mother and baby are then considered as equals and one doesn’t trump the other.
There are numerous unfortunate life questions which arise, such as Tay-Sachs pregnancies, pregnancies as a result of rape or seduction and the like. In all such cases, which depend upon numerous Jewish legal questions, must be referred to a competent rabbinic authority who is well-versed in the life-and-death implications and ramifications of a decision made in this area.
The unique, timeless approach of halachah, Jewish law, is profound and often breathtaking in its scope, and something for all of us to take great pride in.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,