The Parameters of Abortion in Judaism

Abortions are sometimes permitted when the pregnant woman is at risk.

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Reprinted with permission from “Jewish Views on Abortion,” from The Jewish Family and Jewish Continuity, edited by Steven Bayme and Gladys Rosen, published by KTAV.

All rabbinic teaching on the subject of abortion can be said to align itself either with Maimonides (1135-1204) on the right, or with Rashi (1040-1105) on the left. The “rightist” approach begins with the assumption, formulated by the former chief rabbi of Israel, Issar Unterman, that abortion is “akin to murder” and therefore allowable only in cases of corresponding gravity, such as saving the life of the mother. The approach then builds down from that strict position to embrace a broader interpretation of life-saving situations. These include a threat to the mother’s health, for example, and perhaps a threat to her sanity in terms of suicidal possibilities, but excludes any lesser reasons.

The more “liberal” approach, based on Rashi’s affirmation that the fetus is not a human person, is associated with another former chief rabbi of Israel, Ben Zion Uziel. This approach assumes that no real prohibition against abortion exists and builds up from that ground to safeguard against indiscriminate or unjustified thwarting of potential life. This school of thought includes the example of Rabbi Yair Bachrach in the sev­enteenth century, whose classic responsum saw no legal bar to abortion, but would not permit it in the case before him. The case was of a preg­nancy conceived in adultery; the woman, “in deep remorse,” wanted to destroy the fruit of her sin. The responsum concludes by refusing to sanc­tion abortion, not on legal grounds, but on sociological ones, as a safe­guard against further immorality.

Other authorities, such as Rabbi Jacob Yavetz, disagreed on this point, affirming the legal sanction of abortion for the woman’s welfare, whether life or health, or even for avoidance of “great pain.” Rabbi Yehudah Perilman of Minsk in the nineteenth century affirmed the permissibility of terminating pregnancy in the case of rape. Seed implanted in her against her will, he declared, may properly be “uprooted.”

Maternal rather than fetal indications are the rule for both schools of thought. The rightist position certainly considers only the mother, but so does the leftist one. The latter school includes even the mother’s less-than-life-or-death welfare, expressed in the words “great pain,” and based on the principle tz’ara d’gufah kadim, “avoidance of her pain takes pre­cedence.” Rabbinic rulings on abortion, when collated and distilled, are thus amenable to the following generalization: If a woman were to come before the rabbi and seek permission for an abortion by saying “I had German measles, or I took thalidomide during pregnancy, and the possi­bility is that the child will be born deformed,” the rabbi would decline permission on those grounds. He might say, “How do you know that the child will be born deformed? Maybe not. And if so, how do you know that such a condition is worse for him than not being born? Why mix in ‘the secrets of God’?” But if the same woman under the same circumstances came to the same rabbi and expressed the problem differently, saying, “The possibility is that the child will be born deformed, and that possibil­ity is giving me extreme mental anguish,” then the rabbi would rule other­wise. Now the fetal indication has become a maternal threat, and all the considerations for her welfare are brought to bear. The fetus is unknown, future, potential, part of the “secrets of God”; the mother is known, present, human, and seeking compassion.

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Rabbi David Feldman is Rabbi Emeritus at the Teaneck Jewish Center and the Dean and Founder of the Jewish Institute of Bioethics.