Jews and Abortion

Signs at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C., in 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

Orthodox teaching on the practice is more complex than some media suggest.

People magazine recently published its pro-abortion issue, “Women’s Choices, Women’s Voices.” In it you’ll find the misleading story of an Orthodox Jewish mother and wife in the suburbs of New York City who once traveled to Colorado to abort a distressed baby in the 31st week of pregnancy.

The woman chose to tell her traumatic story, relayed to a People staffer, anonymously because she fears her community and friends will stigmatize her for ending a life, “even for medical and religious reasons.” And she ends her story on a curiously secular-sounding note: “We look at it as a religious right, and a right to healthcare.” (Italics mine.)

“We” do? Though I’m not a rabbi — I haven’t even attended yeshiva in decades — I can’t recall ever hearing or reading any Orthodox Jewish scholar asserting that there’s a religious mandate to abort an unborn baby. A necessity, perhaps. A tragedy? Definitely.

So while I’m no authority, it’s certainly fair to say that Jewish law on the topic of abortion is complicated (you can read a short explainer here). To refer to Orthodox Jews as politically “pro-life,” for example, would be somewhat misleading — though nowhere as misleading as claiming they’re “pro-choice.”

As one Orthodox rabbi friend of mine notes, the woman in the piece may be underestimating the chances of viability for that pregnancy, “but there are cases where Halacha [Jewish religious law] allows abortions with a combination of extremely low-viability chance (not just speculative) and mental- or physical-health stress on the mother.”

Even we accept that a “very prominent Orthodox rabbi” had “blessed” euthanasia — and that’s what the woman claims to have done, as she admits to not knowing if the baby was going to die — it doesn’t mean that abortion is generally permissible in Orthodox communities. It certainly doesn’t indicate that aborting a sick baby is considered a “right” or a “religious necessity,” as the People magazine piece tries to suggest.

As a religious matter, this Jewish woman surely knows that there’s a difference between a “mitzvah,” or commandment, and a “heter,” a dispensation, because of some extenuating circumstance, to act in a way that is otherwise forbidden.

Even while there’s much debate over abortion in Orthodox Judaism, most cases are contingent on the baby being considered a “rodef,” an entity that’s chasing the mother with the intention of killing her. That was not the case with this woman, as far as we know, so it was an outlier, at best. Abortions undertaken to save the lives of women wouldn’t be illegal under any “ban,” as no mainstream pro-life group supports such restrictions.

It’s always possible that People editors didn’t fully convey the woman’s thoughts on the matter. By stripping a thorny religious issue of all its complexity, People is purposely mischaracterizing the Jewish position to the public. It’s less a matter of faith and more about media malpractice. The entire point of the piece, of course, is to suggest that even Orthodox women support late-term abortion. This is almost surely a lie.

The woman, needless to say, is, like the rest of us, free to embrace any position she wants on the matter of abortion. Her notion that aborting a baby for convenience — the motivation for the majority of abortions, both early and late — should also be regarded as “healthcare” isn’t a religious position. It’s a secular political position.

Like hers, my views on abortion have little to do with theology. They do rely on basic science and longstanding concepts of morality that are informed by religion. So it’s important to note that Orthodox Jewish beliefs regarding abortion are organized around a respect for the sanctity of life — including the mother’s — not expediency or “choice.” This isn’t the Reform movement, whose often malleable “religious” teachings comport with whatever radical progressivism happens to be in vogue. Whatever else this woman claims, it’s absurd to argue that Orthodox rabbis share the contemporary Left’s views on the rite of abortion, far more reminiscent of Baalism than of rabbinic Judaism.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer for National Review and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun

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