This is a very complex question. The answer depends largely upon how one defines "the" Jewish view on abortion (or any other subject for that matter). Frequently, we have to speak of Jewish views rather than of a single correct answer. And even if we agree that "the" Jewish view regarding abortion is the one offered by halakhah (traditional Jewish law), the fact is that the halakhah is not of one voice on this issue.
Even so, with all this in mind, there are some things we can say with confidence.
1. Jewish law does not define abortion as "murder." This is because the fetus is not defined as a nefesh, a full legal person. (The fetus is certainly a human organism, and we might even call it a "human being," depending upon how we define the word "being." But that is different than calling it a person, which is a legal, rather than a biological designation.)
2. Jewish law requires that an abortion be performed in cases when the birth of the child would endanger the life of the mother.
3. Some Jewish legal authorities justify this abortion on the grounds that the fetus is a "pursuer" attempting to kill the mother. In such cases of "pursuit," the law often justifies the sacrifice of the pursuer in order to save the life of his/her intended victim.
4. Other Jewish legal authorities reject this analogy. The fetus is not a "pursuer," because it cannot form intent and because its act of "pursuit" is simply the natural process of birth. If abortion is necessary to save the mother, they justify it on the grounds that the fetus is not a nefesh and that the mother, who is a full legal person, therefore takes precedence over its life.
5. Many recent authorities - and I include some estimable Orthodox rabbis in this group - learn from this that, precisely because the fetus is not a nefesh, abortion may be justified for purposes of protecting the mother's health as well as her life. And "health" can include emotional and psychological health along with her physical well-being. Others, including most (but not all) contemporary Orthodox authorities, take a more stringent view and restrict abortion to cases where the mother's life is in danger.
6. Even according to the more lenient view described in the last paragraph, Jewish law does not sanction abortion "on demand," that is, without sufficient cause. But just what constitutes "sufficient cause" is, as we have seen, a matter of deep controversy and disagreement. No choice for abortion should be made in a cavalier manner, but an abortion may be justifiable in a wide variety of circumstances.
As a result of this controversy and disagreement, most Reform rabbis oppose any effort by the government and its police forces to restrict a woman's right to decide in favor of abortion. Not because her decision is always "right," but because she should not be prevented from arriving at a choice that is, quite possibly, morally justifiable. To deny her that right is to interfere with her moral, and quite possibly religious freedom.
It is always difficult when a question is posed: “What is the Jewish view?” There are different authorities, and they approach all questions from alternate perspectives.
I approach matters of this sort from an halakhic perspective, in other words, I look to authoritative Rabbinic sources and Rabbis who are rooted in these sources and considered reliable decisors of halakhah.
Naturally, there is a range of opinions in all matters and these can be looked to as being within the fold of halakhah.There are piskei halakhah, rather than the pesak halakhah.Within Rabbinic Judaism, one is to look to a particular rabbi for their direction.
I would like to list the names of but a few of the better known rabbis, all of whom have written major works in the area of Jewish medical ethics: Rabbis Immanuel Jakobovits, Yitzchok Breitowitz, David Feldman, Isaac Klein, Elliot Dorff and J. David Bleich. Please note that this list is not exhaustive.
Rabbi Dr. David Feldman wrote a pioneering work dealing with all concerns facing marital issues in Judaism.His book Marital Relations originally appeared under the title Birth Control in Jewish Law.An early work that covers broader ethical issues, written by the former Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, Jewish Law Faces Modern Problems, is still of great value.
Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, who is also a professor of law at the University of Maryland, pointed out in a public lecture, that the matter of abortion in Jewish Law is a highly nuanced matter and is not dealt with as it is in Christianity, especially by the Catholic Church and other Christian denominations.This is so since in Judaism the status of the relationship between mother and fetus is perceived differently
Since according to Judaism, under very circumscribed circumstances, abortion may be permitted- even mandated - Rabbi Breitowitz mentioned that Jews describe themselves as pro-choice rather than pro-life.Of course, this characterization was said in the context of a lively and even entertaining public lecture.I cannot speak on behalf of Rabbi Breitowitz, who is a great authority in all areas of Jewish medical ethics.He has the last word as to his current positions and recommendations.
In his monumental work A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Rabbi Isaac Klein presents five questions relating to a woman considering abortion.Of these, two are, “Is abortion permitted—1. When the mother’s life is threatened? 2. When the mother’s health is imperiled?”
There are two concepts in Torah sources that must be considered: nefesh tahat nefesh—the prohibition of taking one life to save another, and ubar yerekh imo hu—the fetus is [considered] a limb of the mother.
Another consideration brought forth by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah is that of a rodef—pursuer—or one that is a threat to the very life of the mother.Such a pursuer or rodef can be the ubar—fetus.In a case such as this, one would of necessity do whatever is possible to preserve the life of the mother.
It should be noted that we are talking about life—nefesh, and fetus—ubar.Before the actual birth, the mother is considered “life” and the fetus is considered “potential life.”Judaism and Rabbinic sources do not call an ubar—fetus—a baby.Using the term baby or tinok (Heb.) for a fetus, is confusing and, to my way of thinking, prejudicial.
In more recent times, a question has arisen in determining what is meant by a woman’s health.Some authorities have considered extending the concept of health to include psychological health.This, of course, in modern times, is seen to be no less serious than the physical wellbeing of the mother.
Nonetheless, such matters as whether or not to undergo abortion are taken very seriously.As a rule, Judaism forbids abortion, but there are extenuating circumstances when an abortion may be permitted and even mandated.Under no circumstances does Judaism condone abortion as a form of contraception.
Those abortions that are permitted under Jewish Law are not considered murder.Abortions are thought of as ending life in potential, but not murder, as some in the media would lead us to believe.
Jewish law sees the fetus during the first forty days of gestation as "simply water" and during the rest of gestation "like the thigh of its mother." It does not become a full human being until birth -- specifically, until the head emerges from the vaginal canal or, if a breach birth, when "the majority of the body" or the shoulders emerge. Nevertheless, abortion is generally prohibited, not as an act of murder (for the fetus is not a human being, and murder only applies to human beings), but as an act of self-injury. As Jews, our bodies belong to God, not ourselves, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to avoid danger to our bodies and to take positive steps to take care of them.
However, if the mother's life or health is at stake, then an abortion is required. The Mishnah says that even at the moment of childbirth, if the mother cannot deliver the child, we must go into the womb and dismember the fetus in order to save the life of the mother. (This assumes that a Caesarian section cannot be safely performed while preserving the life of the mother , for it was not until the late 1940s that that was possible.)
Then there is a middle ground, when an abortion is permitted but not required. That occurs when there is an elevated risk to the mother beyond that of normal pregnancy but not so much as to constitute a clear and present danger for her (e.g., when the mother has diabetes). Under those circumstances the mother may choose to accept the risk and go through with the pregnancy, presumably with extra supervision by her physician, or she may choose not to accept the risk and abort the embryo. Conservative and some Orthodox rabbis would also permit an abortion if the child is going to suffer from a lethal genetic disease or would be otherwise severely malformed.
For more on this, see my book, Elliot N. Dorff, Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics.
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