How Do Jews Address The Issue Of Abortion?
As A Catholic, I Did Not Know The Answer - So, I Asked
By Dell Hill
I’m not Jewish. I’ve mentioned, in passing, a time or two that I’m Catholic.
have a reasonably good sense for how Catholicism deals with various
issues, but when it comes to knowing much of anything about Judaism, I’m
clueless. That’s why I never hesitate to ask my Jewish friends the
questions and learn from their answers.
wondered how Jewish folks address the issue of abortion and birth
control. Catholic teachings have been made abundantly clear for a long
time, but I’ve never heard anyone discuss how the Jews treat this
So I asked.
A life-long friend - who just happens to be Jewish - said “you should ask Rabbi Simmons”. So I did.
What do Jews believe about birth control and abortion? Does it differ for orthodox, conservative, and reform Jews?
speaking, the use of contraceptives is not allowed. The basic Jewish
idea is that the one who does the family planning is God.
there are circumstances when birth control is not only permitted, but
advisable. There are a variety of factors, most importantly the parents'
emotional and physical state. A rabbi would have to weigh the factors to
determine what method of birth control should be used, and for how long
should it be used.
for abortion: Nobody disputes a woman's "free choice" over her body -
to cut her hair, or to undergo lyposuction if she chooses. On the other
hand, everybody agrees that there are limits to "choice" - i.e. a woman
does not have the right to commit murder.
the abortion debate really comes down to one basic question: Does
abortion constitutes murder? In other words, does a fetus have the
status of human life?
Jewish position is a rational, middle ground, taking into account both
the quest for spiritual greatness and the realities of everyday life.
Jewish law, a baby attains becomes a full-fledged human being when the
head emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a
So is it permitted to destroy this partial life?
no. This is illustrated by a case in the Talmud whereby a building
collapsed on Shabbat. The rescue crew does not know if anyone is trapped
under the rubble or not. And even if someone is trapped, they may
already be dead. Despite these doubts, we push aside the restrictions of
Shabbat in order to dig out the rubble - on the chance that it may
result in the prolonging of human life. Why? Because every part of human
life - even a doubtful, partial human life - has infinite value.
This applies to a fetus as well.
there can be certain factors which may create an exception. For
example, when partial life threatens a full life. The Talmud discusses a
case where doctors say that if the mother continues with the pregnancy,
she will die. In such a case, we kill the fetus in order to save the
mother. Why? Because when the partial life of the fetus is weighed
against the full life of the mother, we give precedence to saving the
Our question now is where to draw the line? What constitutes a "threat to the mother?"
a general guideline, if the fetus poses a real danger to the mother -
i.e. the pregnancy will aggravate a heart condition or will cause the
mother to go blind - then there is room for discussion.
about danger to emotional health? There are certain circumstances where
this, too, may be grounds for abortion. For example, if the mother
became pregnant through rape, and the thought of bearing this child will
cause her a nervous breakdown or severe emotional trauma.
are other factors as well, including whether the pregnancy is in the
first 40 days or not. But the bottom line is that each case must be
decided individually by a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law.
* * *
society has slipped far from this Torah value. Of the approximately 2
million abortions performed annually in the United States, about 75
percent are attributed to matters of convenience (i.e. having a baby
would interfere with the mother's school or work), or to financial
considerations (i.e. a baby is not affordable at this time).
Judaism, these constitute unacceptable reasons for killing the "partial
life" fetus. When one's parents become old and require costly
medication, should we then kill them also for financial considerations?!
how about when a fetus is diagnosed as having birth defects? Some argue
that abortion of a handicapped fetus spares the child a "poor quality
of life." Yet who said that having one arm constitutes a poor quality of
life?! Should the mother of Stephen Hawking (the world's leading
astrophysicist who is near-fully paralyzed) have made a decision that
his was a life not worth living? Every time someone loses a limb in an
accident, should we kill them?!
how about mental retardation? If a set of highly intelligent parents
are appalled to discover that their fetus has an IQ of "only" 100, is
says that this type of selection process is evil. It hearkens to the
Nazi program called "T-4," which systematically set out to kill all
physically and mentally disabled persons.
contrast, the Torah teaches that the true value of a person is his
soul. The great 20th century sage the Chazon Ish used to stand up in
respect when a person with Downs Syndrome came into the room. He
explained that to have been given such limitations, the soul of this
person must be very great, having come into this world to complete the
process of perfection in this unique way.
Ask any parents of a handicapped child and they will tell you that their child is precious - irrespective of "performance."
* * *
If the issue of abortion seems morally clear, so why is there such a bitter public debate?
it is difficult to accept responsibility for the consequences of
actions. When you get behind the wheel of a car, there are a variety of
risks involved. Even if you are careful, you might accidentally run
somebody over and kill them. And you'd have to live with that
too, when a man and woman engage in intercourse, there are a variety of
risks involved - among them transmitted diseases, emotional attachment,
and pregnancy. It is not a question of being careful. It's a question
of taking responsibility for one's actions.
what's the right thing to do. In the absence of severe health danger, a
woman must carry the fetus to full term. With 1-in-6 American couples
infertile, giving up the baby for adoption is an obvious option. (Of
course, a Jewish mother who opts for adoption should stipulate that the
child ends up in a Jewish home.)
I hope this has been helpful.
With blessings from Jerusalem,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons”
you, Rabbi Shraga Simmons. You’ve certainly answered my question and
offered what I like to call ‘good old fashioned common sense’ to
illustrate your points.
on the answer from Rabbi Simmons, I’d say that - with very few
exceptions - Jews are opposed to abortions and the use of contraceptives
to prevent pregnancy.
is it then that women like Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fl), who, by all
accounts is Jewish, get away with openly advocating abortion rights for
women in America?
If her religion dictates, as Rabbi Simmons says, “In the absence of severe health danger, a woman must carry the fetus to full term,” is
there no penalty for Mrs. Schultz in staunchly supporting and voting
for abortion legislation, in violation of her own religion’s teachings?
I would be very interested in hearing your answers....