Jewish Views on Partial Birth Abortion

Most (but not all) rabbinic authorities consider "partial birth abortion" on the same terms as other abortions.

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The following article refers to the Senate’s 1997 vote to ban partial birth abortion and the expected presidential veto of this ban. President Clinton did veto the ban, but it is once again a possibility, with President Bush strongly supportive of it. The House of Representatives approved the ban in August 2002, and the bill is now in the hands of the Senate. A version of this article was published in the North Jersey Jewish Standard, May 30, 1997. It is reprinted with permission of the author.

Abortion is acceptable under certain halakhic [Jewish legal] guidelines, but what about so-called partial-birth abortion? The Senate voted last week to ban the controversial procedure, known medically as “intact dilation and extraction” and usually performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, in which a fetus is pulled partially out of the birth canal, and then aborted. The method may involve puncturing the head of the fetus and removing the brain. This is done to allow for an easier vaginal delivery of the aborted fetus.

The Senate bill did not garner enough votes to withstand an expected presidential veto, and the procedure may, therefore, continue to be legal except where specific states prohibit it.

The Union for Traditional Judaism, based in Teaneck, NJ recently issued a statement declaring that it: “opposes abortion as a means of birth control, but cannot in good conscience, allow abortion to be made the legal equivalent of murder.”

The statement, released by Rabbi Ronald D. Price, Executive Vice President of the UTJ presents the widely held view of abortion: “If the mother’s life is at risk, abortion is mandated at any time prior to the actual birth of the head of the infant. Once the fetus has come into the light of day, its life has the same valence as that of any other person and must be protected.” The statement continues, “Ironically…to outlaw late term abortions altogether could ultimately be a violation of Jewish law and thus a violation of religious freedom.”

Congress and the Rabbis

The issue of partial birth abortions has become so controversial that it resulted in a bill, proposed by Senator Thomas A. Daschle (D-SD), which sought to ban all late-term abortions. Unexpectedly, given political rhetoric, many Republican legislators opposed and many Democrats supported that bill, and it was subsequently defeated in Congress.

Those who opposed the bill felt that it provided no mechanism to ensure that it would reduce the inappropriate use of partial birth abortions, since it left complete control of when and how to abort in the hands of physicians. Another version, the bill put forth by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), which was passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate, bans any use of partial birth abortions to terminate a pregnancy, unless a woman’s life is clearly at stake, not simply to protect her health.

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Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman

Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman is a Professor of Biology at William Patterson College in Wayne, New Jersey. She set up and ran the first in vitro fertilization laboratory in New York City and is the author of Brave New Judaism: When Science and Scripture Collide.