Join Rabbi Haber's mailing list:
Home What's New Blogs Store Dedications Weekly Parshah About TorahLab Contact Us Links

Lifecycle

Significant Events in Jewish Life

Abortion

By TorahLab

The Talmud relates the following story. Isaiah the prophet and Hezekiah, the King of Israel, found themselves in the same locale.
The protocol question came up - who should visit whom. Finally, the King became ill which gave the prophet the added incentive to pay the call. When he arrived, Isaiah said to the King, “You have forfeited your life in this world and the next!” The king, in his state of shock questioned why this should be. “Because you refrain from procreating.” With a sigh of relief he said, “That is not a problem. The reason I refrained is because I saw in my holy spirit, that the children I am destined to have will be evil and destructive.” To this the prophet responded, “You have crawled into an area that no man could enter. Our function is to do what is right in the eyes of the Almighty; His function is to be concerned about the future.”
I retell this story to point out one thing. What we know and what we are able to know is mind boggling, to say the least. But what we don’t know is as deep as the deepest ocean. We must be careful with the scientific crystal ball available to us. We must realize that there is a God in the world who in the final analysis is in control and is watching with a very careful eye. As much as we can predict the future, it is God alone who determines it.
Which relates to the Jewish view of abortion.
Centuries before Sinai, God said, “He who spills the blood of a person within a person his blood shall be spilled.” The rabbis of the Talmud explain that this refers to an abortion. This would seem to be the end of the discussion, except for the fact that, many centuries later, when God actually gave the Torah to the nation of Israel, this prohibition was curiously not repeated. It did not get listed as one of the 365 negative commandments of the Torah. It became clear to all that to perform an abortion was clearly against Gods will, as He said to Noah, but it was not as clear exactly what the parameters were.
The Jewish view of the nature of the fetus begins with a statement in Exodus dealing with a miscarriage caused by men fighting and pushing a pregnant woman. The individual responsible for the miscarriage was fined, but was not tried for murder. We learn from the commentaries that payment was made for the loss of the fetus and for any injury done to the woman. Obviously no fatal injury occurred to her. It was the line of reasoning of the commentaries that if this case had been considered as murder, the biblical and rabbinic penalties for murder would have been invoked. Even thought the fetus was killed, the act was not considered a murder.
The Mishna is a second source of the nature of abortion. The Mishna states that it is permissible to perform an embryotomy if a woman’s life becomes endangered by the fetus during the process of giving birth. However, if a major part of the fetus has emerged, or if the head has emerged, then the fetus possesses the status of a person and cannot be dismembered, as one may not take a person’s life in order to save another’s.
This Mishna considers the unemerged fetus entirely part of the woman’s body. Just as any of her limbs could be amputated to save her life, so may the fetus be destroyed. The same point of view was taken in another section of the Mishna, which discusses the execution of a pregnant woman for a crime. The authorities would not wait for her to give birth, even if that process had already begun.
According to this line of thinking, abortion is clearly forbidden but is not murder. It would therefore follow that, in a case of danger to the mother, an abortion would be permitted even if it were not a life threatening danger.

Quality of Life
One of the major factors that go into the secular decision-making process is “quality of life”. This refers to the quality of life of the yet “ unborn child “ the feeling that allowing the child to be born and suffer would be a ruthless act. From a halachic point of view, the welfare of the child is not at all a consideration. We cannot terminate a life or a potential life because we deem it to be of poor quality.
The exception to this might be a fetus that does not and will not develop a brain. From a halachic point of view, this fetus will never be considered a nefesh and an abortion would be permitted. If, however, the newborn will be considered a person, i.e. nefesh but with an extremely poor quality of life, then we cannot on that basis decide to terminate its life. It would not be within the authority of a parent to decide to terminate a life, and certainly not the decision of the doctor. Even a person who himself is in great pain is forbidden to terminate his own life. The only one who can make this decision is God. As far as the life of the child goes, we must leave this one to God.
The rabbis also refer to a case of terminating a pregnancy within 72 hours of conception by the use of a drug. HaRav Shlomo Zalman Ohrbach ruled that this would not be considered an abortion, as the fetus embryo is not yet developed to the stage of prohibition, and in a case of treat trauma, such as a rape victim, this form of abortion may be recommended.
On the other hand, the halacha is very concerned about the welfare and quality of life of the mother. According to all authorities, if a question of life or death for the mother arises, then there is no question that an abortion must take place. According to the authorities who feel that abortion is not murder, in cases of extreme hardship, under stringent conditions an abortion could be contemplated. What exactly constitutes severe hardship occupies a large amount of space in the responsa material.
If the psychological welfare of the mother is the concern, the rabbis in consultation with medical professionals must decide if the condition feared is treatable without terminating the pregnancy. If it is deemed treatable with therapy or even prescribed drugs, these may be better options than abortion.
In the case of extreme abnormalities and birth defects, one must again consider the effect they will have on the parents of the child.
Some scholars, among them Rav Moshe Feinstein, were adamant that although one is not convicted for murder in the case of abortion, nevertheless it is still a form of murder. As such, the only possibility for abortion is only when the mother’s life is endangered. Although the fetus is not a person for it has no nefesh, its till possesses a special status, and therefore, killing it could be considered murder. Not the type of murder that would obligate punishing the killer with capital punishment, but murder nevertheless. According to these authorities, nothing could justify an abortion except literal threat of death to the mother.
Being that the issue at hand is possibly murder, it would be impossible for any one of us to make this decision alone. Since the issues surrounding this are so severe, anyone who has even the most basic concern with God’s opinion should consult the most competent rabbi possible.
As a final caveat - it is incumbent upon the Jew to remain a thinking individual at all times. We must constantly be cognizant of what we are doing and of our actions. It’s quite possible that in a different age and in a different place the mass abortion-on-demand movement would be considered barbaric. Those who do not liken abortion to murder compare it to the amputation of a limb or the removal of an organ. Certainly we would consider amputation in a life threatening situation to be necessary, but in a less dangerous situation, we would weigh this issue with extreme care. The packaging of abortion in our age has made it easier to deny the ramifications of what it is we are really doing.
When these questions were asked hundreds of years ago, it was with the utmost respect for human life and dignity. It was with a burning desire to have a child, and with the highest degree of yiras shamayim. In the Hippocratic oath every doctor proclaimed, “I will not give to a woman a pessary to procure abortion.”
Lest one is tempted to conclude that Jewish law manifests a cold attitude toward an individuals plight, it is important to recognize that, quite to the contrary, halacha is motivated first and foremost by concern for all living creatures. But the timeless priorities of the Torah may differ from the marketed value system of our day.
I am not qualified to explain why Rav Moshe was as adamantly against abortion as he was. Perhaps it was the breakdown of society and the very smooth anesthetic of modern culture that caused him to scream in order to wake up people to what they were really doing.
King Solomon proclaimed, “We know not the way the wind will blow, nor how the bones grow in the womb of her that is with child. We know not the work of God who ultimately, does all things” (Koheles 11:5).

View and leave comments • (0 comments so far)

-