Abortion, Jewish Texts and the Rabbinic Commentaries
There are three [persons] who drive away the Shekhinah from the world, making it impossible for the Holy One, blessed be He, to fix His abode in the universe and causing prayer to be unanswered....[The third is] he who causes the fetus to be destroyed in the womb, for he destroys the artifice of the Holy One, blessed be He, and His workmanship....For these abominations the Spirit of Holiness weeps...
Zohar, Shemot 3b
On July 10, 1970, after abortion laws were liberalized in New York and three years before the infamous Roe v. Wade decision, two top leaders in Orthodox Judaism issued a joint statement warning about “indiscriminate and blanket” abortions:
“In Judaism, the life of an unborn child is sacred and only when it is a threat to the mother can the moral issue of abortion be resolved. For each person to decide arbitrarily, on the basis of economics or convenience, whether a fetus is to survive is literally for man to play G-d and is religiously blasphemous and socially destructive.” 1
Rabbi Karasick stated in an interview: “Only when there is actual and acute danger to the life of the mother does Jewish religious law permit termination of pregnancy.” Further, he called the destruction of an embryo in the mother’s womb “sacrilegious interference with life itself and akin to murder.” 2
Some 40 years later, Dr. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in a lecture to physicians, eloquently affirmed the view of Judaism on the subject of abortion. Dr. Rabbi Tatz says that the “unnecessary termination of a pregnancy is spiritually very negative thing,” and stated:
“The default position is that it (abortion) is not allowed, no matter what the American courts may say, and that it’s a woman’s right to her own body her body and so forth...Judaism says quite clearly that terminating a pregnancy for no reason is not allowed.” 3
Rabbi Tatz continues: “The Zohar says that one of the categories of people who drive divine presence from the world is people who are engaged in the destruction of pregnancy. The Zohar actually gives a reason; it says that this is the…personal handiwork of Hashem in progress; the formation of a human being and terminating a pregnancy or destroying a fetus is kabbalistically extremely negative.4
Throughout sacred Jewish texts there are specific references indicating that the destruction of an embryo is forbidden, unless the abortion is to save the mother’s life. In that situation, the mother’s life takes precedence and abortion is not only allowed, it is required.
There exist debates among rabbinic authorities as to whether the abortion proscription is based upon traditional Jewish texts. Medieval and contemporary commentators have questioned and analyzed the status of the unborn child from a reading of Mishnah, Ohalot 7:6, which indicates clearly that the mother’s life always takes precedence. Maimonides codified this law, introducing the principle of rodef, or pursuer principle:
“Maimonides formulation of “fetus as pursuer” should seem to grant the fetus significant status, perhaps even full human status. A nonfetal pursuer is a human being. The only reason he can be terminated is because he is engaged in actions that are a direct threat to the pursued and no other means of protection is available. Maimonides seems to be equating “human being as pursuer” and “fetus as pursuer.” Granted human status, however, a fetus commands a presumption that it must be protected. Overcoming that presumption is a heavy burden that presumably can be met only by either a direct threat to the life of the mother or perhaps by something almost as serious. Thus, it would seem, outside of these few cases, that abortion is forbidden.”5
Because the “fetus” is not an aggressor with the obvious intention to take the mother’s life, there is an obligation to protect fetal life. Rabbi J. David Bleich writes:
“Maimonides, in codifying this law (Hilkhot Rozeach 1:9) is not content to state simply that the life of the fetus is subordinate to that of the mother…Maimonides indicates that the life of the fetus is forfeit only because it is, in some sense, an aggressor. When the fetus is not the proximate cause of the threat to the mother this rationale does not apply. Maimonides’ comment also serves to establish that feticide is a form of (non-capital) homicide.6
Rabbinic authority Rabbi Moshe Feinstein considered abortion murder, albeit without a death penalty.7 Rabbi Issar Unterman considered abortion akin to murder.8
Abortion is clearly not sanctioned in Jewish law, according to foremost Orthodox authorities. In the journal Tradition, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein9 includes references for the prohibition, including the following five reasons:
The mitzvah of p'ru ur'vu (Genesis 1:28) says we are to be fruitful and multiply. This is a fundamental commandment that as partners with Hashem, we are to populate the earth.10
Jewish Law prohibits abortion as we are custodians of our bodies and are restrained from complete autonomy to do as we wish:
“My body is not my own; it is the property of G-d who has entrusted it to me for care and preservation. Thus, the premise of the pro-choice movement (we have absolute control over our bodies) is fundamentally flawed.”11
Moreover, although the preborn child is not considered nefesh (a person) “the potential person (sofek nefesh) has enough status to prohibit its destruction.”12
Included in a footnote in Rabbi Bleich’s book Judaism and Healing, is a citation from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 91b and Kiddushin 30b an notates:
“The Gemara concludes that the embryo is endowed with a soul at the moment of conception. Moreover, the Sages taught, “There are three partners in [the generation of] man: the father, the mother, and G-d.”13 From a religious perspective, then, the decision to abort is not granted exclusively to the mother’s rights.
In 1975, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, one of the most notable rabbis and authorities on Jewish law made the following statement while he was teaching a class:
“And if you kill the fetus, a time will come when even infants will be killed…If the dominant principle governing the logos [“thinking capacity”] is that abortion is morally permissible because only a mother has a right to decide whether she wishes to be a mother, then infants may similarly have their lives terminated after birth.”14
Exactly. That is one of the reasons the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act was enacted on August 5th 2002.
1George Dugan, “Top Orthodox Rabbis Score ‘Blanket’ Abortion Permission,” New York Times, (July 11, 1970), p. 15.
3 Rabbi Akiva Tatz, "Medical Halacha (Law) – Abortion." Simple to Remember - Judaism Online. https://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/abortion/
5””Abortion and Jewish Law," pp. 65 – 75. In the book, “Public Policy and Social Issues: Jewish Sources and Perpectives.” Edited by Marshall J. Bergen, Praeger: December 30, 2003, 296 pages.
6J. David Bleich. “Judaism and Healing: Halakhic Perspectives.” KTAV Publishing House, Inc. 1981, pp. 96-97.
7Abortion, Halachipedia. http://halachipedia.com/index.php?title=Abortion
9“Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective,” by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. Tradition, 25(4), Summer 1991, p.4.
10Haber, Rabbi Yakov. The Commandment of P'ru Ur'vu: Example of the Dual Law System. TorahWeb.org, http://www.torahweb.org/torah/2011/parsha/rhab_noach.html
11Breitowitz, Rabbi Yitzchok A. How a Rabbi Decides a Medical Halacha Issue, Synopsis of Presentation Conference on Jewish Medical Ethics, San Francisco, CA, February 18-20, 1996.
12Rosner, Fred. Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law. Fred Rosner, M.D. KTAV Publishing House, Inc. Hoboken, New Jersey, 2001, pp. 184, 189.
13Op cit. pp. 97, 102.
14Ben-Mordechai, Menachem. “‘You Murder the Children’: Rav Soloveitchnik on Abortion.” The Jewish Press, 20 Tishri 5774 – September 23, 2013. http://www.jewishpress.com/blogs/a-banner-raised-high/you-murder-the-children-rav-soloveitchik-on-abortion/2013/09/23/