Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
In recent weeks there has been a great deal said by presidential candidate, Donald Trump, that has caused deep upset and anger among women in particular. But last week, during the final presidential debate, he shared a perspective on late term abortion that, beyond being so utterly misinformed, created a dangerous misperception that must be corrected. It also lacked any iota of compassion for the incredibly painful and heart-wrending decisions that women have had to make in the latter stages of a pregnancy.
Language is incredibly powerful. As you would expect, the language used when this issue comes up as a political, legislative question, can be highly charged. Proponents who believe that abortions after approximately 20 weeks should be banned entirely under any circumstance will often use the term ‘partial term abortion.’ As Dr. Jen Gunter, an Ob-gyn who blogs at Dr. Jen Gunter: Wielding the lasso of truth explains, “you cannot be partially born.” You are either pregnant or not, delivered… or not. ‘Late term’ is defined by law in terms of weeks in states that do not permit these abortions or place limits or procedures in place before such an abortion can be performed. Dr. Gunter further clarifies by explaining that “…only 1.3 percent of abortions happen at, or after, 21 weeks, and 80 percent of those are the results of catastrophic defects with the fetus.” (2012 stats from CDC – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
All of this goes to say that the picture painted by Trump of a late term abortion that involves ‘ripping a baby’ out a mother at 9 months, is a complete fallacy. And it is a dangerous one. People vote for legislation, are influenced in how they think about candidates for the Supreme Court, and make judgments about women’s choices, based on their understanding of this issue. So it is of vital importance that we understand what we are talking about.
First, when we look to Jewish law and opinion on this issue, we will find that it does not make any distinction between abortions performed early in a pregnancy and those performed later. Traditionally, the sole concern that would receive approval in Jewish law for an abortion is the health of the mother. This always takes precedence, until the point at which the crown of the baby’s head has emerged during birth, at which point it is given equal status as a life to the mother. These determinations begin with a source in the Torah (Exodus 21:22) that presents an example of case law where, if a pregnant woman is injured while two men are fighting and miscarriages, a fine is due. Had Torah considered it to be the murder of a life, the judgment would have been of a completely different order.
Over time, and particularly in the last century as medical science and cultural considerations have changed, some halachic legal authorities have continued to strictly permit abortion only when the life of the mother is at risk. Others have offered more lenient opinions where the mental health of the mother may also be taken into consideration.
Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg, based at Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem, and a member of the Jerusalem Beit Din (religious court), offers a response that is more in keeping with what we have come to know about the experiences of women and the kinds of ‘catastrophic defects’ that, mentioned above, account for 80% of the 1.3% of abortions each year that take place after 21 weeks. He has permitted abortion in the case of Tay Sachs or other serious genetic defects discovered during the pregnancy, or if the pregnancy were the result of rape.
It is helpful for Jews to be aware of these rulings, even if we do not consider ourselves to be bound by halachah, because it provides us with an ethical framework if we ever find ourselves in situations where we have to make these heart-wrending decisions. It also helps us to understand why many Jews, when speaking about US law, are ardent supporters of legislation that supports a woman’s right to choose, including keeping the door open to the option of late term abortions. Our tradition understands these issues quite differently from, for example, Catholicism. And so we understand that there are a number of traditions that draw different conclusions on questions of abortion. For the State to choose just one of these traditions as its guide could, and sometimes is, an infringement on our freedom of religion. The best of medical knowledge can help guide civil legislation. This can leave each of us to then make decisions that are in keeping with our own faith.
If you have ever lived through one of these tragic experiences, or know someone who has, you will understand that these are some of the most heart-breaking and difficult moments of a person’s life. When parents learn that the child they hoped to see enter their lives will not be able to survive more than a few hours or days because of a developmental defect that has emerged late in the pregnancy, it is devastating. When a woman learns that the heart of the fetus is no longer beating, can you possibly imagine what it must be like to continue to carry that fetus if you have not stood in those shoes? When a doctor explains that they must remove a fetus with some urgency because a mother is experiencing preeclampsia (also known as toxemia) and her life is at risk, can we possibly conceive of the moment when permission is granted? A presidential candidate who so misrepresents what is at stake in a late term abortion knows nothing of these situations. We who know better must set the record straight.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: yuh-HOO-dah or yuh-hoo-DAH (oo as in boot), Origin: Hebrew, Judah, one of Joseph’s brothers in the Torah.