Contrary to popular belief, Judaism is pro-life. While as many as 76 percent of American Jews are pro-choice, their position does not represent Jewish law and tradition.
Judaism disseminated the idea that God has a covenantal relationship with all of His children and, therefore, regards their wanton destruction as an abomination rather than a matter of individual choice. Based on this principle, Judaism introduced the notion of an imperative to oppose abortion into Greco-Roman society, which responded with scorn and mockery.
Prior to the US Supreme Court’s imposition of a permissive abortion regime, it was well-understood that most Orthodox rabbis maintained restrictive positions on abortion. Unfortunately, cultural developments over the ensuing decades have confused many Jews, leading them to accept or even promote abortion.
What Jewish Tradition Teaches
The most respected Orthodox rabbis for nearly a century, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, wrote that abortion constitutes murder. Rabbi Feinstein even prohibited amniocentesis, a test that can detect fetal abnormalities, out of fear that parents might choose to abort a fetus with birth defects. “The murder of an unborn child is classified as a crime,” wrote Rabbi Soloveitchik, who therefore maintained that someone who performs an abortion is deserving of death. He also noted that Jewish law requires one to violate the Sabbath—an action only permitted where necessary to save human life—for the sake of preserving fetal life.
This tradition is reflected in the sixteenth-century codes of Jewish law that are still considered authoritative by Orthodox Jews of both European and Middle Eastern descent. In the twelfth century, Maimonides wrote that abortion is prohibited except to save a mother’s life. This position also appears in the Talmud, one of the earliest sources of rabbinic law. Similarly, the Zohar, the most prominent Jewish mystical source, considered abortion an abominable pagan practice.
Philo and Josephus, prominent observers of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world, both noted that Jews considered abortion a serious sin. This pro-life tradition has its earliest legal roots in the plain meaning of the Bible in Exodus 21:22-25, which suggests that even inducing an abortion through recklessness would constitute a capital offense.
Exceptions for the Health of the Mother
Even within this restrictive tradition, there is widespread acceptance that abortions are allowed when necessary to save a mother’s life. Some rabbinic authorities extend this exception to serious health concerns. However, neither version of this exception can supplant the rule and flip the tradition to the “pro-choice” position, because abortions are rarely performed to alleviate grave health concerns.
Even the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-choice organization that was formerly part of Planned Parenthood, acknowledges that only a “small proportion” of women have abortions because of concerns about their health or the health of their child. This was true even though it included conditions like “morning sickness” in the same category as grave, life-threatening health concerns. In fact, the most common health concern was “feeling too ill during the pregnancy to work or take care of their children.” Guttmacher admitted that “the large majority” of women choose to abort their child “in response to an unintended pregnancy” rather than because of concerns about health or mortality.
Threats to maternal life are rarely cited when women explain the reasons they choose to have abortions. Many doctors, including those who are pro-choice, acknowledge that abortions are rarely necessary to save a mother’s life.
Notwithstanding the infrequency with which such situations occur, virtually all abortion regulations contain exceptions for situations in which the mother’s life is in danger. Allowing abortions in such cases is well within the mainstream pro-life position.
From both philosophical and Jewish perspectives, exceptions to abortion restrictions must be justified based on the right of self-defense. Just legal regimes recognize the validity of one human being killing another to protect her own life. The most highly respected medieval and modern Jewish rabbis, including Maimonides, believed that this was the only way to justify an abortion. Allowing such an exception does not devalue or dehumanize unborn babies, because the right of self-defense does not depend on the age, size, or location of either human being. The child is treated as having the same inherent value and basic rights as any other member of the species.
In practice, most Orthodox Rabbis hold pro-life positions. The most common permissive opinions are more lenient concerning restrictions on abortion until forty days into a pregnancy. We maintain that these positions do not accurately reflect Jewish tradition. But even these views are compatible with most of the currently proposed pro-life legislation, which restricts abortion after events such as the development of a child’s heartbeat (as early as six weeks) or her ability to feel pain (around twenty weeks). And, as noted above, very few abortions occur due to concerns regarding a mother or a child’s health.
Abortion and Religious Liberty
Liberal Jews often argue that laws intended to protect religious liberty would exempt them from laws restricting or banning abortion. Even assuming that those Jews properly understand Judaism—and we have shown that they do not—they are mistaken, because they misunderstand religious liberty law. Proponents of such exceptions are attempting to use the demagogic caricatures created by critics of religious liberty protections as if they were actual laws.
Opponents of religious liberty laws, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, falsely claim that such laws give religious people license to do whatever they want—even to commit monstrous crimes. The mistaken demand for religious exemptions to laws restricting abortion reflects the most perverse of these claims.
In truth, laws designed to protect religious liberty do not give adherents carte blanche to violate laws prohibiting heinous crimes, such as murder. They are a mechanism intended to balance Americans’ conscience rights against other compelling social interests. Where society has a sufficiently strong interest, such as prohibiting murder, and a conscience-based exemption would be incompatible with promoting that interest, no exemption is granted.
An abortion that is not justified by self-defense is the unjustified and purposeful taking of a human life—otherwise known as murder—and therefore no exemption would be available. Religious liberty laws do not let religious adherents get away with murder, figuratively or literally.
It should not be surprising that liberal Jews have attempted to use religion to justify abortion. It is a scientific fact that a living member of the human species comes into existence at fertilization. In his 1933 book Life in the Making, Alan Guttmacher, a founder of Planned Parenthood, admitted that “we of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm.” Proponents of liberal abortion access must therefore resort to some non-biological discipline, such as philosophy or theology, to distinguish and devalue a fetus relative to all other members of the human species. Fortunately, traditional Jewish sources do not lend themselves to this ghastly and dehumanizing task.