Terminating a Pregnancy

The author adapts biblical texts to create a ritual that expresses the anguish of terminating a pregnancy

Print this page Print this page

The Talmud in Sanhedrin 72b says that a fetus may be considered a rodef, one who "pursues" another with intent to kill. Jewish law allows a rodef to be killed to preempt his act of murder. Although Maimonides clarifies that the fetus is a rodef only when the woman is having difficulty giving birth, the author extends this concept to situations where the fetus is threatening either the physical or the psychological/spiritual health of a pregnant woman. This article suggests ritual for the day of the termination, and a second article describes follow-up ritual during the month following the termination. Reprinted by permission of the author from Taking Up the Timbrel: The Challenge of Creating Ritual for Jewish Women Today (SCM Press).

Pregnancy can be ended for many reasons--all of them bring pain and distress to the people involved and no decision to end a pregnancy is ever taken lightly. This ritual is designed to cover different stages of the process: a meditation and prayer once the decision is taken; again after the termination; and finally a ritual to take the participants back into life. The liturgy is based on the understanding of the fetus as being a rodef--a pursuer of the life of the mother. Using the words of our matriarchs, the stories of King David, and the poetry of the psalms, it aims to return the mother back into the cycle of life through the cycle of the new moon.

Meditation to Be Read Silently After the Decision to Terminate

When David fled from his pursuer, he knew that there was but a step between himself and death. He asked, "What have I done? What is my iniquity that I am now forced to make this choice?" And he was reassured: there was no sin that had brought about his present position. The next day was the new moon, when there was to be a feast for everyone in the household.

Jonathan told David, "You shall be missed because your seat shall be empty." When we flee from a pursuer, we too know that there is but a step between ourselves and death. We ask ourselves, "What have I done? What was my sin that now I must travel this road?" As Jonathan reassured David, so should we be reassured. David chose to go. Having weighed up the prospects and having considered them with his friend, he made the decision for his life. Jonathan told David to go in peace, and the Lord would be with him. For all our lives there will be someone who is missed, whose seat is vacant at family meals.

Yet now we say, "Go in peace, and the Lord be with you."

A Prayer to Be Said by the Parent of the Child Before the Termination

To judge between life and death is to take the place of God. Yet I must make this judgment now, for a pursuer comes after me and I must act.

I look to our matriarchs and ask, as did Rebecca [when the twins Jacob and Esau struggled in her womb], "If it be so, why am I thus (Genesis 25:22)?"

I hear the voice of God to Sarah [after announcing to the old woman that she would bear a child], "Is anything too hard for the Lord (Genesis 18:14)?"

I hear Rachel, who said [after her maid Bilhah bore a son to Jacob], "God has considered me and heard my voice (Genesis 30:6)."

I ask you God to hear me, to judge me favorably, to respond to my pain and distress. Have compassion because of Your own greatness, and because of our ancestors who trusted in You. Give me wholeness of heart so that I will love and revere you, and then I shall never lose my self-respect, nor be put to shame, for you are the power that works to save me.

"Look and answer me, Lord my God; lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:4)."

Hannah said of herself [when she was pleading to the Lord for a child], "I am a woman of sorrowful spirit... I have poured out my soul before the Lord (I Samuel 1:15)," and she was answered, "Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant you the petition that you have asked of Him (I Samuel 1:17)."

To Be Read Silently After the Termination Has Taken Place

David's child was sick, and David prayed to God for the child, he fasted and went in and lay all night upon the ground, and the elders of his house arose and went to him to raise him up from the earth, but he would not; nor would he eat bread with them.

And it came to pass that the child died. David's servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; they feared for his reason. But when David saw, that his servants whispered, he understood that the child was dead. Then he arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes, and he came to the house of the Eternal and bowed down, then he came to his own house, and they set bread before him and he ate.

His servants asked him, "What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while he was alive, but when the child was dead, you rose and ate bread."

And he said, "While the child was alive I fasted and wept, for I said, "Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me? But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me." And David comforted Bathsheba his wife, and went in to her and lay with her, and she bore a son (II Samuel 12:16ff).

Elijah arose and fled for his life, and came to Beersheba. He left his servant there and went a day's journey into wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree, and he asked that he might die; he said, "It is enough now, God, take away my life, for I am not better than my ancestors." He lay down and slept under that tree, and behold, an angel touched him and said to him, "Arise and eat."

He looked--and there was a cake baked on the coals, and a jar of water at his head. He ate and drank and laid himself down again.

The angel came a second time and touched him and said, "Arise and eat; the journey is too much for you." And he arose and ate and drank, and journeyed. He came to a cave and lodged there, and behold the word of God came to him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

… The Eternal passed by and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces, but God was not in the wind. And after the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of slender silence, a voice which asked, "What are you doing here (freely taken from I Kings 9:3-13)?"

Blessed are You, God, who brings the dead to everlasting life.

Barukh ata Adonai m'chayyeh ha-meitim

May my child come to his/her resting place in peace.

Al m'komo yavo v'shalom [for a boy]

Al m'komah tavo v'shalom [for a girl]

A Prayer to Be Said After the Termination

Be gracious to me, God, for I am in distress;

my eye is consumed with grief, my soul and my body.

My life is spent with grief, my strength fails,

I am like a broken vessel.

Let me not be ashamed, God, for I have called on you.

I said in my haste, "I am cut off from before Your eyes,"

but still you heard the voice of my entreaties when I cried to You.

There are those who say that God has forsaken me.

God, do not be far from me and make haste to help me.

Restore me back to life, bring me back from the depths of the earth.

You are my hope, You have searched me and known me,

You are acquainted with all my ways.

Out of the depths I cry to You, O God, hear my voice.

How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?

How long will you hide Your face from me?

As for me I will behold Your face in righteousness.

I will be satisfied when I awake, beholding Your likeness

(The following psalms were used to create this prayer: Psalms 31, 71, 139, 130, 13, 17).

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild is a rabbi at Wimbledon & District Synagogue in London, England.