The Parameters of Abortion in Judaism

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

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One rabbinic authority, writing in Rumania in 1940, responded to the case of an epileptic mother who feared that her unborn child would also be epileptic. He wrote: “For fear of possible, remote danger to a future child that may, God forbid, know sickness—how can it occur to anyone to actively kill the fetus because of such a possible doubt? This seems to me very much like the laws of Lycurgus, king of Sparta, according to which every blemished child was to be put to death…Permission for abortion is to be granted only because of mental anguish for the mother. But for fear of what might be the child’s lot? The secrets of God are not knowable.”

He was, in fact, basing his decision on an explicit ruling in 1913 by Rabbi Mordecai Winkler of Hungary: “Mental-health risk has been defi­nitely equated with physical-health risk. This woman, in danger of losing her mental health unless the pregnancy is interrupted, would therefore accordingly qualify.”

The emphasis on maternal as opposed to fetal indications caused a dilemma with regard to such tragic but clearly fetal afflictions as that of Tay-Sachs. Screening of prospective mates or parents is recommended, but after a pregnancy begins, may amniocentesis be performed in order to determine if the cells of the fetus have been affected? Having limited the warrant for abortion to maternal indications, and since no risk to the mother’s life or health exists even with the birth of a Tay-Sachs child, the answer would be negative. And since abortion is ruled out, amniocentesis itself would be halakhically proscribed as a gratuitous invasive assault, with its own attendant risks upon the womb. The dilemma, however, is solved by a perception on the part of the mother that this is really a maternal indication. The present knowledge that the child will deteriorate and die in infancy, although the birth itself will he safe for her, gives her genuine mental anguish now. The fetal indication has become a maternal one. Alternatively, though the majority of halakhic positions are as described here, there are at least two eminent authorities, Rabbi Saul Israeli of the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court and Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, an expert in medical ethics, who have ruled that some fetal indications, such as this one, are serious enough in themselves to warrant an abortion.

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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.