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What is the Jewish view on abortion?

by Rabbi Moshe Miller

  

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The Short Answer:

Generally speaking abortion is prohibited. Nonetheless, it is not considered "murder", and there are actually instances when it is permitted. A qualified Halachic authority would have to determine that on a case by case basis.

The Askmoses Answer:

This is a very complex question and cannot be answered easily. Let us begin by pointing out the debate in the world at large centers around the rights of the woman to have an abortion, as opposed to the rights of the baby to live.

Torah does not talk in the language of rights. It talks of commands and prohibitions, duties and obligations. It uses the language of responsibilities.

The difference between the two concepts is profound. Rights are what we are entitled to claim from the world. Responsibilities are what the world claims from us. Rights demand; responsibility contributes. Rights are what we think others should do for us. Responsibilities are what we think we should do for others. An ethic of responsibility is more active and altruistic than a politics of rights.1

The entire abortion issue needs to be understood in light of the above. The rule of thumb in approaching this question is therefore “what are my responsibilities and obligations as laid out in the Torah and Rabbinic texts?”
In Jewish law the abortion issue is not couched in absolute yes/no terms. The issues are very complex and there are many variables and provisos – far too many to cover in this forum. This question is therefore best dealt with on a case-by-case basis, since no two circumstances are identical, and what may appear to be insignificant differences from one case to the next can change the entire ruling.

Torah does not talk in the language of rights. It talks of commands and prohibitions, duties and obligations. It uses the language of responsibilities
I will therefore merely give some guidelines for clarifying the issues. For practical guidance one must consult an expert Orthodox Rabbi.


IN GENERAL
There is a broad consensus among Rabbinical authorities that abortion is generally prohibited. However, they disagree as to whether the prohibition is Biblical or Rabbinic in origin.2

As a general rule, abortion in Judaism is permitted only if there is a direct threat to the life of the mother by carrying the fetus to term or through the act of childbirth. In such a circumstance, the baby is regarded as “pursuing” the mother with the intent to kill her.3

Despite the classification of the fetus as a “pursuer,” once the baby's head or most of its body has been delivered, the baby's life is considered equal to the mother's, and one life does not take precedence over another, because it is considered as though mother and child are both pursuing each other.

WHERE THERE IS DANGER TO THE MOTHER
Where there is danger to the mother abortion is permitted even in far-advanced stages of pregnancy.4


All Rabbinic authorities agree that abortion is permitted when the fetus is the direct cause of the mother's life-threatening condition (e.g. due to toxemia, placenta previa). Many Rabbinic authorities rule that abortion is also permitted when the danger to the mother is indirect (i.e., from a disease unrelated to the pregnancy, such as heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease, or hypertension).5

However, a fetus may not be aborted to save the life of any other person whose life is not threatened by the fetus, such as use of fetal organs for transplant.

Some Rabbinic authorities also recognize psychiatric factors in evaluating the potential threat that the fetus poses to the mother. However, the danger posed by the fetus (whether physical or emotional) must be both probable and substantial to justify abortion.6  The degree of mental illness that must be present to justify termination of a pregnancy has been widely debated by Rabbinic scholars,7  without a clear consensus of opinion regarding the exact criteria for permitting abortion in such instances.8

Footnotes

  • 1. From an article by Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England.
  • 2. See Dr. Avraham Steinberg’s Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, s.v. Abortion and Miscarriage fn. 99, 100. We have quoted liberally from this text.
  • 3. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 1:9; Talmud Sanhedrin 72b.
  • 4. Mishna Ohalot 7:6; Maimonides loc cit.
  • 5. See Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics, loc. cit.
  • 6. Igrot Moshe.
  • 7. See Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics. p. 10.
  • 8. See Moshe Spero , Judaism and Psychology, pp. 168-180.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Intimacy » Reproductive Issues
Life Cycle » Birth » Reproductive Issues

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.