When it comes to abortion, Judaism takes a nuanced approach
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Roe v. WadeShading differences

When it comes to abortion, Judaism takes a nuanced approach

No uniting Jewish doctrine exists about the medical procedure.

Supreme Court by Glenn Beltz, courtesy of flickr.com.
Supreme Court by Glenn Beltz, courtesy of flickr.com.

The fate of abortion rights is once again center stage after a draft opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court was leaked indicating that it is poised to overturn the nearly 50-year-old Roe v. Wade decision.

What are the Jewish views on a woman’s right to choose? It depends on whom you ask, as there are subtle and significant nuances among the various movements and rabbis.

Generally, abortion is prohibited, according to Rabbi Levi Langer, dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center, an Orthodox learning institution in Squirrel Hill.

“Then there are specific circumstances under which we would allow it,” Langer explained. “That’s the only authentic way to articulate this. We start by prohibiting it, and then we work from there.”

Young Israel Rabbi Shimon Silver, who is also Orthodox, agreed.

“It could be considered murder, in some form,” Silver said, but added, “the life of the mother does come first before the baby is born.”

Silver explained that when discussing Orthodox Judaism’s views on abortion, the first principle to be applied is that no person has rights over another person’s body — but God does.

“If God owns my body, that means I can’t do with my body what God doesn’t allow me to do,” he said.

The next principle to consider is what the Torah mandates, Silver said — and those instructions aren’t black-and-white.

“There are many nuanced factors that could change the ruling from one woman to the next,” he said.

In fact, Jewish law and secular law might conflict when it comes to a woman’s ability to have an abortion, Silver said. In some cases, for health reasons, an abortion might be the only choice permitted by Judaism. And those reasons could extend beyond physical health, Silver continued, noting that a birth that would cause a mother undue mental or emotional strain — or that could pose a danger to her or those around her — might be cause for her to have an abortion.

The final determination should be decided by the woman in consultation with a highly competent rabbinic authority, he said.
Both Langer and Silver would prefer to see Roe v. Wade overturned but understand that such a ruling could present a problem for a Jewish woman who might be permitted, or required, by Jewish law to have an abortion.

“This would be a gamble on the moral conscience of American society,” Langer said, “We have to have an honest conversation after that so we can find some moderate path which will not be an extremist’s in either direction.”

Still, Silver said, Roe v. Wade might have contributed to an erosion of the value of life.

“The lack of respect of life brings along with it a lot of violence that we see — people no longer value life,” he said. “People are in a frame of mind that life is cheap. If Roe v. Wade were overturned, the effect might be that there will be more value of life.”

Conservative Judaism is clear in some areas when it comes to abortion — and less so in others, according to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills Associate Rabbi Amy Greenbaum.

“It’s very clear that if the mother’s health is in danger there is no question that a mother’s life takes precedence,” Greenbaum said. “I believe many Conservative rabbis, myself included, would consider the emotional and mental health as well, because those are just as important as physical health.”

The fetus, Greenbaum explained, is considered part of the mother until either the head or the majority of the body emerges.
In fact, Greenbaum said, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote that if a woman converts to Judaism while she is pregnant, the fetus is Jewish until birth. After birth, however, the child is considered an individual and needs to convert on its own.

Greenbaum said that if Roe v. Wade is overturned, the Jewish principle of dina de’malkhuta dina, or the “law of the land is the law,” would take precedence.

“We should be an advocate and fight for what we believe is correct,” she said. “This (overturning Roe v. Wade) is not keeping with my Jewish beliefs and Jewish tradition. It’s something that we should be fighting against.”

Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David said the Reform movement’s position on abortion is clear and was codified at the 95th Annual Convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, when the right of a woman or individual family to terminate a pregnancy was affirmed. As part of the resolution, the CCAR also “opposes amendments and legislation that would abridge or circumscribe this right.”

“I stand with our movement’s statement,” Symons said. “I believe that the life of the mother takes precedence over that of the fetus.”

It’s not only the mother’s life that is at stake, “but also the quality of life,” Symons said. “And yet, choosing to end a pregnancy is a sad choice that has consequences.”

Like Greenbaum, Symons is clear: If abortion becomes illegal in parts of the country, it is not permissible to break the law.

“I believe though, that it is our duty to help people who are choosing to end a pregnancy be able to do that within the states that will uphold that right,” Symons said.

For Langer, the discussion should be less about red states and blue states; rather it should be about finding a moderate approach “that allows for us to bear sanctity for the nascent life and at the same time give due consideration to the needs of the mother. We need both but, unfortunately, that’s in scant supply these days. We see a lot of stridency on both sides.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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