Recently on Twitter, U.S. House Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez stated, “For people who say, ‘I believe it’s a life,’ some people don’t. Our Jewish brothers and sisters, they are able to have an abortion according to their faith!”
The central point AOC attempts to make in the video is one that seems to be on repeat these days, as America awaits the Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case: Because not all religions agree on when life begins, the pro-life movement intends to impose Christian morality on everyone else. “When does life begin?” asked an NPR article a few weeks ago. “Religions don’t agree.” In that piece, author Sarah McCammon also pointed to Judaism as the obvious counter to Christianity.
Of course, it’s not at all surprising that various religions hold differing views on matters of moral significance. After all, religions don’t agree about whether God exists, who God is, how we would know, whether Jesus is God, and whether we are God. And that’s just disagreements about God. Expand the discussion to morality, heaven, hell, sin, or salvation and, well, we’d be here all day.
Even so, the consistent reference to Judaism as the counter to “fundamentalist Christianity” (as AOC put it in the video) led me to wonder whether it is really the case that Judaism supports a woman’s right to abort her child. Thankfully, the eminent historian, Dr. Glenn Sunshine, is part of the Colson Center editorial team. He looked into the matter, and here’s what he discovered.
Though Jews today differ tremendously on abortion (also not surprising, since they also differ tremendously on all manner of theological, liturgical, moral, and political issues), historically, the position is much clearer. Except to save the life of the mother, Judaism has historically opposed abortion.
The Jewish position goes back to Genesis 9:6. Because this is the record of God’s instructions to Noah after the Flood, many Jewish scholars have understood this verse to be binding on all humanity. While modern Christian Bibles such as the ESV translate the verse as, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for man is made in the image of God,” Jewish scholars who comment on this passage suggest that the text actually says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man within man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Rabbis who understood the text to read “man within man” believe that this teaching refers to an unborn child. Thus, these scholars argued for a universal prohibition of abortion for all of Noah’s descendants, Jews and Gentiles alike.
In Jewish law, the unborn is recognized as nearly a full-fledged human being, but not quite. Consequently, it was considered a sin to deliberately harm a fetus, but doing so did not carry the full penalty associated with harming someone already born. In Exodus, a man who strikes a woman and causes her to give birth was not guilty of murder but had to pay a financial penalty. While this could refer simply to a premature but live birth, to the rabbis, this referred to miscarriage or stillbirth. They treated this loss as more of a property crime than a murder, despite the unborn being made in the image of God.
Similarly, if a woman’s pregnancy threatens her life, the fetus was to be considered “one who is pursuing another” to kill her. Jewish law permits one to kill a pursuer to save the life of the one pursued, and hence abortion is permissible to save the mother’s life if directly threatened by the pregnancy. If the baby’s head had emerged, however, the baby was given the same moral status as the mother and, thus, could not be killed.
Since Judaism refuses to assign differing values to life, Orthodox rabbis authorized to decide matters of Jewish law rejected abortion for fetal abnormalities or deformities.Historically, then, Judaism opposed abortion under normal circumstances but permitted it in a very limited number of situations, primarily the saving of the mother’s life. For example, the great medieval rabbi Maimonides permitted abortion only if the pregnancy “definitely and without question” endangered the life of the mother. This was the nearly universal view within Judaism until less than a century ago.
Today, some modern Orthodox Jewish scholars permit abortion to save the life of the mother, even if the fetus is not the direct cause of the threat to the mother’s life. Others extend permission further to protect the mother’s physical or mental health; some to pregnancies caused by forbidden sexual relations such as adultery, rape, or incest; and some, a minority, to severe and proven fetal abnormalities.
These are not universal concessions, however. Therefore, most Orthodox Jewish scholars advocate making such decisions on a case-by-case basis rather than establishing general rules for handling these situations. Abortion is understood differently within the Conservative and Reform branch of Judaism (also known as liberal and progressive Judaism).
The Conservative branch of Jews, unlike the Orthodox Jews, generally follow a somewhat looser interpretation of these guidelines. In 1983, leading Conservative rabbis issued a statement permitting abortion to prevent severe physical or psychological harm to the mother or in the case of extreme fetal abnormalities. These were essentially the same guidelines already adopted by Reform Judaism in 1958, which were then modified in 1985 to specify that psychological reasons included rape and incest. At the same time, however, most Reform rabbis opposed abortion on demand, abortion for trivial reasons, or abortion because of family hardship.
Therefore, using Judaism as a counterexample to the Christian position that life is sacred from the moment of conception is a red herring, and ignores the real limitations placed on abortion within historic Judaism. While Conservative and Reform Jews do support legal access to abortion, they have only done so recently and despite their moral and religious views, not because of them.
Regardless, policies regarding abortion should not be based on the differing opinions of various religions. After all, if differences disqualify opposition to abortion, they would also disqualify support for it. And, even if religions differ on when life begins, the science of embryology is clear that it begins at conception. What is seen in God’s Word is consistent with what is in God’s world. So, we ought embrace the innate dignity of all human beings, no matter how small.
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