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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Rabbi Yosef Adler, of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, NJ, explained the halakhic view: “If a woman’s life is in danger, under those circumstances everyone would agree that it would be permissible to engage in that type of abortion. If the woman’s life was not in danger, here you now have a major difference amongst various halakhic authorities…The stringent view, basically that of Rav Moshe Feinstein, is that under no circumstances other than danger to the welfare of the mother is an abortion permissible…”

Adler also cited Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, a prominent halakhic authority from Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, who takes a more lenient stand on abortion.

For instance, in the case of Tay Sachs or other serious genetic defects discovered during the pregnancy, or if the pregnancy were the result of rape, then abortion would be allowed. Waldenberg, Adler noted, “is a member of the beit din [religious high court] in Yerushalayim [Jerusalem]. There are many who follow him. He happens to be pretty lenient about how late this would be permitted as well. Once he establishes the legitimacy of an abortion, in all probability he would not find much difficulty allowing it later as well.”

But Rabbi J. David Bleich, author of scores of articles and numerous books on Jewish medical ethics, indicated that, according to Jewish law, partial birth abortions should never be an option. He said, “The procedure itself in virtually all cases…is designed to kill the baby and not to save the mother. Medically, if there is a problem in that stage of pregnancy and you want to protect the mother you do a C-section, in which case the baby can be preserved as well.”

Of the legislation, Bleich commented, “Judaism opposes abortion, and to the extent that this limits abortion, it needs to be supported.”

Another expert who has written and lectured extensively in the field is Rabbi David Feldman of the Jewish Center of Teaneck, NJ. “The point is that all abortion is brutalizing and partial birth [abortion] is more so…” said Feldman. But, he added, “it is clear in Jewish law that if the mother’s life or health are threatened, then the point at which an abortion takes place does not matter…The principle is that the mother comes first and we do everything to save her life.” He went on to describe a recent case at Hackensack Hospital and Medical Center [NJ], where the decision regarding an Orthodox woman was particularly complicated.

In this particular case a Caesarean section was not desirable. “A woman who has eight children had a problem with a hydroencephalic fetus,” Feldman related. “The head was too large for conventional birth, so they recommended a C-section. But she reasoned that a C-section would be adverse to the strength of the uterus for the next child. So here we have not a case of mother vs. child, but child vs. potential future children. And she said, ‘You must puncture the head of that hydroencephalic fetus, because his life is doomed anyway…and preclude a C-section for me, which is not dangerous to my life, but is adverse to the health and the strength of the uterus for future birth’”

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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.