Abortion in Jewish Thought

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The Jewish position on abortion occupies a middle ground, neither condoning it nor categorically prohibiting it. Indeed, while Judaism disapproves of abortion on demand, in certain cases it not only permits, but requires it.

The Jewish discussion about abortion begins with a biblical text. Exodus 21:22-23 discusses a situation in which two men are fighting. During the fight, one of the men accidentally hits a pregnant woman. The Torah says that if the woman is killed then, “a nefesh shall be given for a nefesh (a life shall be given for a life).” The man who struck her is considered a murderer and is punished accordingly. If, however, the woman miscarries but does not die, the man must pay monetary damages.

jewish bioethics quizHe is not liable for murder because the fetus is not considered a nefesh, a human being.

While establishing the status of a fetus, this text tells us nothing about the permissibility of abortion. It is another source—the Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE), in Tractate Ohalot—that provides us with the underlying principle: “If a woman is undergoing a perilous pregnancy, the fetus may be destroyed since her life takes precedence over its life.” When a woman’s life is in danger, abortion is permitted. However, the range of this permissibility is subject to debate and hinges on a single question: Why does the woman’s life take precedence over the fetus?

The medieval commentator Rashi (1040-1105 CE) interprets this Mishnah in terms of the verses from Exodus cited above. Accordingly, the woman’s life takes precedence over the fetus because the fetus does not have the status of a nefesh, a human being. Maimonides (1135-1204), on the other hand, believes that aborting the fetus is permissible because the fetus is considered a rodef, one who “pursues” another with the intent to kill. According to Jewish law, it is permissible to kill a rodef in order to preempt his act of murder. Because in this case the fetus threatens the life of the pregnant woman, it is permissible to abort it. These two interpretations yield the same result for this specific case—the fetus is aborted and the woman is saved—but they serve as the basis for two differing approaches to abortion in general.

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