Understanding abortion in the Torah and Talmud

Dear Rabbi Fried,
It has been my understanding that Orthodox Judaism is pro-life, and abortions are prohibited. Yet, I recently learned about an Orthodox woman who was granted permission by her rabbis to have an abortion. What is the Orthodox view on abortion?
Jessica M.
Dear Jessica,
The recent passing of the New York abortion law has churned up much discussion as to how to ethically view abortion. But neither the standard interpretation of pro-life or pro-choice accurately describes the Torah viewpoint.
The simple answer is that, in Judaism, the question of abortion is a very complicated one and, in part, depends upon the stage of the pregnancy.
Of course, the Torah is pro-life, as Deuteronomy 30:19 supports choosing life; we also value life over nearly all values. Yet, even the most important of Torah laws are trumped by even the slightest concern of danger to life. For example, Talmud Yoma 82a rules that danger to life supersedes Yom Kippur, Shabbat and other mitzvos, besides the three cardinal sins.
The popular concept of pro-choice, which puts the decision of whether to or not to discontinue a pregnancy in the hands of the mother, does not jibe with the Torah decision-making process.
However, 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. To say that a mother can herself decide matters of life and death for her fetus — a life in its own right — based on her own rationale, convenience or other reasons would run contrary to the entire process by which matters of life and death are decided in Jewish law.
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.
This applies from the 40th day of 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 living human being. Before the 40th day, according to most opinions, killing a fetus is a lesser transgression than murder, but a transgression nonetheless, unless a number of criteria are fulfilled.
There are, however, situations where the health or the life of the mother is sufficiently compromised by the fetus. In such situations, Torah law allows us, or requires us, to intervene.
The Talmud discusses the case of a woman whose pregnancy put her life in danger, where the Mishna (Yoma 82a) ruled to terminate the pregnancy in order to save her life. The rationale given by the Talmud and Maimonides is based upon a distinction between the the mother’s “complete life” vis-à-vis the fetus’ life, which is considered only a “partial life.”
Consequently the mother’s life, when endangered by pregnancy, trumps that of the fetus, and the performance of an abortion is indicated. Once, however, the head or the majority of the body of the fetus is presented, the mother and baby are then considered as equals, and one life doesn’t supersede the other.
There are additional difficult and thorny questions that arise, such as if the fetus is a carrier of a genetic disease, or the pregnancy results from rape. Such cases must be referred to a competent rabbinic authority that is well-versed in this specific area of Jewish law, to discuss the option of abortion.
One message that is clear from Jewish law is, we do not have a “fundamental right” to control our bodies, and a woman does not have such a “right” which allows her to terminate her pregnancy at will.
This world view is totally at odds with the New York abortion law.
Although there is much to debate about the specifics of this law and in what cases might Jewish law conform, the overall outlook on both the ownership of our bodies and the definition of abortion as just another medical condition, is diametrically opposed to the timeless truths of Torah, the truths passed down to us by the very Creator of our bodies, which are endowed with the reproductive powers, enabling the creation of life we call a fetus.

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