Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Abortion and birth control in Jewish Law

"Hello Mrs. Anna,

I have been doing some research on Judaism. While looking around I found an interesting site: Judaism 101 (www.jewfaq.org). As I was browsing it, it mentioned that abortion is permitted in Judaism and that the unborn are not seen as humans but potential humans. I also thought it odd that it says that Judaism doesn't permit condoms but allows the use of (hormonal) birth control (which also works in causing abortion).

So in short, I was wondering what is your thought on this. And if you are pro-life (which it seems you are from your blog), how do you defend this position, using the Bible/Torah, against other Jewish people who are not?

Thank you for your time. Please take care."


Hello there, and thanks for sending your question.

There has been a lot of debate on the issue of abortion among the greatest of rabbis, and I cannot say a complete unity of opinion was reached. I will try to outline the general principles.

On the one hand, unlike certain Christian circles, Judaism doesn't completely ban abortion. On the other hand, Judaism doesn't permit abortion on demand, or for reasons such as financial incapability or out-of-wedlock pregnancy. We love and cherish children, and treasure and welcome new life:

"Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate" (Psalm 127)

It is true that in Jewish Law, the unborn child isn't considered a full-fledged human being. However, he is seen as a being with a soul, from day 40 and onward (around the time when an unborn baby's heart starts beating). No rabbi will light-heartedly authorize an abortion, and many will agree to an abortion only when the pregnancy poses a direct and substantial threat to the mother's life (until the baby is born, his or her life isn't considered equal to the mother's life).

While I have heard of some rabbis who permit abortion (even late-term) in cases of severe physical abnormalities, or when the pregnancy makes the mother so depressed she might become suicidal, personally I stick to the opinion that abortion can only be justified in the extremely rare cases when continuation of pregnancy directly and inevitably threatens the mother's life.

I believe that "happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them". I also believe that a substantial percent of abortions brutally committed all throughout the world stems precisely from the source of not treasuring and cherishing children, of not seeing them as beautiful gifts from the Lord, but rather as burdens, unwanted hindrances standing in the way to a better life.

Abortion debates are often held from the point of view that abortion is something women want. If we love children, if we cherish life, why is that? I believe that being pro-life starts not from banners, legislations and campaigns, but from loving, treasuring and welcoming children into one's life.

The abortion rate in traditional Jewish community is very low, and it is so well-known that even secular doctors don't press prenatal testing on Orthodox Jewish women. "We are obligated to tell you these tests exist," - most of them will say, - "but we realize you probably won't take them because you are religious, and wouldn't have an abortion anyway."

For more information, I suggest this article, which rounds the subject up.

As to your second question - why the Pill is permitted by most rabbis but condoms aren't - the answer is relatively simple. It is forbidden for a man to - how shall I put it - spill his seed in vain, so a man cannot use condoms. The Pill is used by women, which is a way around this prohibition. The potential abortifacient effect of the Pill is written off saying that while we cannot be sure there was pregnancy, it isn't considered abortion.

This is, again, an issue where rabbinical opinions are divided. Some will only permit birth control when the woman's health is in danger, some will take the financial situation of the family into consideration, some think birth control is permitted to "space" births. However, overall, the general thread is that big families are blessed, and children are gifts from the Lord.

From my posts you can understand I have - how should I put it mildly? - a great dislike for hormonal contraception. Personally, I believe too many rabbis are unaware of the potential damage hormonal birth control can cause to a woman's health and fertility, and are too easily tempted to give counsel in favor of it, simply because it is a non-barrier method.

I might have mentioned it on the blog already - I know a deeply religious woman who counseled her rabbi about taking the Pill, after giving two births in two years. When she went off the Pill, after just one year of using it, she couldn't conceive in a natural way, and only gave birth to her third child several years after that, with fertility treatment that left her exhausted. She couldn't go through it again, and while she never used any form of birth control afterwards, she didn't conceive anymore. Her dream of having a big family was shattered.

As the dangers of hormonal birth control are exposed, I believe the rabbinical attitudes will change as well.

Overall, yes, you can definitely call me pro-life. I love life, I love motherhood, I love babies and children. I believe it makes God happy to see a big, happy family, with many children of all ages. God is the Giver of life. Children are His precious gifts, and I cannot understand why on earth anyone would label a child - any child - as "unwanted". I love and treasure precious life, and hope with all my heart to become a mother to a big, close-knit family.

29 comments:

Terry said...

I have been truly educated by this post. I had always assumed that Orthodox Judaism prohibited abortion and birth control. This was an informative post. I was especially intrigued by the abortion information. Thanks for sharing it.

Holly said...

Actually Mrs. T a baby's heartbeat can be decteted as early as 18-21 days, and if it is not detected around this time, it is usually an indicator of some sort of problem. Thanks for sharing your views on this!

Mrs. Amy Brigham said...

This is very interesting, Anna, as I didn't quite know all of this. I knew from my pro-choice days that Judaism and Islam bought "allowed" abortion, but I also knew that we were twisting much of the thoughts from both to make abortion appear more "okay."

Sean and I have been in contact with a Rabbi recently (;o)), and in one of our discussions, somehow this very topic came up. Can't recall how, but oh well. He stated abortion should only be allowed to preserve a mother's life when her life is in immediate and grave danger, from an ectopic pregnancy or other such troubling event. We then got into the discussion of how short a time this tragic crisis could be realized, with the new and improving technology to help save premature babies.

One of my close friends was due around the same time I was with Peapod. Just after the point of viability, at twenty four weeks, her blood pressure skyrocketed to dangerous levels & the doctors couldn't return her BP to its normal levels. They were forced to give her an emergency c-section, telling her the baby would only have a 60% survival rate. Her little girl was born safely, and although she had to spend many months in NICU, she is doing super well today and even just recently had a little brother (born at FULLTERM!!) join her. Truly a miracle to watch unfold!

HisBeloved said...

I so appreciate your blog. I live learning more about what it means to be a Jew in practical terms. Thank you!

Blessings!

Betsy said...

I agree that hormonal contraceptives can oftentimes result in infertility (especially the more radical ones like the shots and patches, etc.). There are, however, women like me who have strangely benefitted from the pill. I have a hormonal imbalance which has made it very very difficult to conceive this second time around. I got pregnant with my daughter 6 weeks after going off the pill (I'd been on it for 10 months total), and it turns out that I probably got pregnant with her because of the pill. The hormonal therapy from the pill fixed my imbalance for a time and enabled us to conceive without any problems whatsoever. Now, two and a half years after her birth, we are two years into the 'trying to conceive journey' again with no luck yet. And, just to be clear, we fully acknowledge that it's all in God's hands and He is the reason that we got pregnant so easily the first time and this current struggle is in His hands as well. That said, we do believe that He works with and through medicine, and we're quite thankful that I was on the pill for that short amount of time and that it resulted in our beautiful little girl. I'm not encouraging women to go on the pill (in 90% of cases I would discourage it), but I did want to share this other side of the story.

Gina Marie said...

I've often wondere about the absolutely black and white position of most Christians on the matter of abortion in comparison to Jewish Law. I was reading the Jewish philosopher Philo for a class and he remarked that the child within the womb has worth, but the mother who has responsibilities on earth is more valuable, and if both lives are in danger the latter should live over the former. Other than that, mercy should always be extended to the growing fetus becaus the womb is a haven, not a place of destruction. I think these issues are delicate ethical decisions that families should make together, especially if a mother already has children but her current pregnancy could result in death. She has a responsibility to her already living children that should be taken into account as she weighs such a heavy decision.

These instances, however, are rare, and usually abortions are performed for very selfish reasons.

Thank you for bringing fresh perspective on such a controversial issue.

Amanda said...

In the case of threat to the mother's life, my husband says, "We can try for another child; I will not have another wife."

This was a good post. :)

Anonymous said...

Regarding Holly's comment: that is actually not true. A baby's heart starts beating at about 5 weeks and usually cannot be detected, even by ultrasound until 6 weeks. I know from personal experience!! I had problems early on in my pregnancy and the wait between the 5th and 6th week ultrasounds was nearly unbearable!!

Anonymous said...

Dear Anna T. I thank you kindly for your thoughtful answer to this question. For a long time, I was perplexed and really held a quiet disdain for Jewish people from my perceived notion that Jewish women considered themselves 'above' righteousness in this regard.

I had long ago supposed that the folks with any religious background at all that could support the idea of sterilization of 'unfit' mothers, eugenics and Planned Parenthood movements as well as abortion clinics, in the US and in 3rd world countries were Jewish, and as so were the decision-makers among those that could stomach the idea of abortion on demand. This reply of yours has really opened my eyes to the possibility that Margaret Sanger was not working in behalf of all Jews, but merely her particular religious faith, much in the same way that a deeply religious grounded woman might hold onto a tenet of her interpretation of her own faith. I am so glad that I can finally remove this prejudicial view from my brain, and I can start to think more broadly about the idea of being both pro-choice and pro-life.

Kirsty said...

Are condoms prohibited when they might protect a spouse from an STD? Does protecting a loved one's health come after the need to keep a man from 'spilling his seed'?

Mrs. Anna T said...

Kirsty: if the STD is detected before marriage, it might be a serious factor against getting married in the first place.

However, human life is above all. If condoms are the only way to protect human life/health, perhaps they might be authorized. I can't tell for sure, because I never researched the matter.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous says:

This reply of yours has really opened my eyes to the possibility that Margaret Sanger was not working in behalf of all Jews, but merely her particular religious faith . . .

I am pretty sure Margaret Sanger was not Jewish. I believe she was raised Roman Catholic, but supported contraception on secular grounds.

-- Pendragon

Anonymous said...

Anna,
I have really enjoyed your site for quite some time now. I apprecite all the effort you have put into it, in fact I have saved some of your articles that will be of benefit to my daughters when they are older and in waiting for their husband.

That being said, I guess I am shocked that any faith can openly condone abortion, even if it is only when the mother's life is in danger or in the case of physical deformity (considered extreme situations). I thought all children were considered blessings, that special needs children are even more so special. What about the stories you hear of parents being told their baby won't live only to have it be perfect after being born? Recently, as told on national news, a woman gave birth even though she had a tubular preganancy, which is normally considered life threatening to the mother. What if that sweet bundle of joy had been aborted. How many have been innocently terminated for medical reasons when they need not be? You wrote that in the eye of Jewish law,the baby is not considered equal to the mother until after birth. It is disappointing that those who cannot defend themselves are not sheltered by those who are supposed to consider them a blessing. In the case of depression or suicide, these are both treatable with medicine nowadays. I guess my question would be what did Jewish families do before ultrasounds and genetic testing? Every child was given a chance at life, even if it only lasted a short while or if the baby was born still.
Anna, I know you did not write Jewish Law, so my post is not directed at you per se. Please forgive me if it seems that way. I am glad to hear that you and your husband consider children a blessing, and that you see abortion generally as wrong. I just cannot get over the fact that a religion would condone an abortion in any case. I have learned something new, although I do not agree with it and for that I thank you.

Mrs. Anna T said...

Anon: Halacha, the Jewish Law, requires to do everything possible in order to save the mother's life, even if it means abortion. If there is real, pressing, inevitable risk, the answer by Jewish Law is clear: the mother's life is in preference.

(Of course there can always be a miracle, but since we cannot predict it, we aren't allowed to risk a woman's life).

Most Orthodox rabbis, I think, stop here. Some debate about abortions being allowed in cases of severe deformities, and frankly, here is where I am at a loss. Personally, I just can't see how *I* - as an expectant mother, for example - would be supposed to decide which life is worthy of living, and which should be exterminated. I don't consider myself, a human being, fit for such a decision.

Anonymous said...

With note of my misperception of Margaret Sanger, please, forgive if it sounds as if I thought she was Jewish. Although the words were in the same sentence, fortunately for my intemperate word construction, I merely noted that she held particular religious views. Anyone can be raised in any religious background and come up with adult deviance as their own particular (and peculiar) religious beliefs, e.g. Karl Marx, Stalin, Jesus of Nazareth.

Without deep knowledge of her, I had put three main pieces of information together 1) Ms Sanger was the founder of PP, 2) the PP machine in my State of Indiana spent horrendous amounts of money in the last political campaign sending every voter information about how my professional livelihood (pharmacy) was incredibly wrong in supporting individual and personal moral issues for pharmacists in filling or refusing to fill some antireproduction drugs, etc.--and the list of supporters on the ads were womens' Jewish groups, as well as Jewish leader individuals, not that I see womens' Jewish groups come out and support any other political stance, but I could not help but wonder why there were so many Jews listed supporters of PP, and 3) PP advertises in the phone book that they advocate truly informed options about family planning but in the end, when one says PP in reference to an unplanned pregnancy, that's where people without means go for abortions. I don't see that their (tax-supported) movement does anything else for people who might need less public exposure to rape, incest, sex and sin. I don't see anyone in their groups sounding off about the unreasonableness and immorality of having US teens dress immodestly, nor their denouncement of aired orgasmic moans on public radiowaves, or anything (and actually practically everything) else in society that foments ill choices on the side- features of sex/sexual pleasure/ reproductive responsibility.

So, with the reply about Ms. Sanger's background, from Pendragon, I have learned more useful things (and, have had reason to look more in-depth at the PP movement in the US quickly on the internet), but I am first indebted and grateful for Mrs. T's grace and kindness of reply to the original questioner, otherwise I might have just continued on assuming that there was some connection with Jews and PP, and thus misconstrued the religious doctrine of Jews that allowed my construct of this connection of ideas.

bazu said...

Anna,

In light of this, how do you feel about those in multi-religious countries, such as the U.S., who want to ban all abortions? Would that not conflict with the decision-making abilities of American Jews, American Muslims, Americans of other religious persuasions who don't ban abortions (not to mention secular Americans?)

-B.

USAincognito said...

Very interesting post. Never knew that the Jewish law allowed for abortions. Always learning something new.

Andrea said...

Anna,

what a timely post (I will explain why that is at the bottom of my comment). You have actually summed up the position of the greatest percentage of pro-life groups-- that is, they hold that to be TRULY pro-life, we must hold the life of the expectant mother in at least equal regard as we hold the life of the unborn baby. These groups would, as you observed, not condone abortion for reasons of financial instability, rape, potentially or definitely disabled child, etc. but would most definitely view an occurrence such as an ectopic pregnancy or any other life-threatening condition as a justifiable reason to deliver the child ahead of schedule.

The Roman Catholic position, I understand, is that there is a vital difference between outright abortion and a deliverance of the child effected to save the life of the mother, these two principal differences being intent and dignity. Unlike an abortion performed with the termination of the pregnancy as its primary intent, to deliver a child ahead of schedule in order to save a mother's life will ideally treat the baby's removal as much like an ordinary delivery as is possible. Doctors will operate as they would on a viable pregnancy, even if it is understood that the baby will not survive. Chemical means are never used to terminate these pregnancies; either labour is induced or a C section is performed (the latter obviously being the case with most ectopic pregnancies). Dignity enters into it because the child thusly delivered is accorded all sacraments and rites that are given to an infant who, for example, was stillborn at full term, or was born to live only a few short hours. I am not Catholic myself, but an acquaintance who is and who related this information helped me immeasurably in understanding her position, as well as helping to me clarify mine (my position on this matter is, incidentally, as far as I can tell, virtually identical to your own).

Anon:

if the case you cite is the one I am thinking of, the one that made the news so recently, to call it a "tubular" pregnancy is false, as the case in question was one of the baby growing to term in the mother's ovary rather than the fallopian tube. The fallopian tube, the location of over 95% of all ectopic pregnancies, is a much less fit location for a baby to develop (yes, even less fit than the ovary!) and when the tube ruptures the mother runs a horrifically high risk of bleeding out; in countries where advanced medical care is less readily available, this risk is raised to one so horrifically high that to forbid the mother access to a C-section and the subsequent early delivery of her child is to condemn her to an appallingly high risk of death.

I will be brutally frank when I say that I view the actions of people who forbid these women (with ectopic pregnancies) access to early C-sections as comparable to the actions of those who might, for example, shove a woman on the train tracks at a time when they know the train is expected to approach; such persons could trust that the train would be running late, or that it was running early and had already passed, or, failing that, they might trust in God to stop the train supernaturally thereby saving her, but in so doing they trust in Him to in some small or large part deny the very nature of the train that is bearing down upon her. He may choose to deliver her from the life-threatening position they have put her in, it's true, but if He does not, those who endangered her life are morally culpable in her death (and if I had my way of it, they would be legally culpable also).

Anna, I say this is a timely post because it is an issue that has just over the past week or so flared up amongst very conservative Christian groups; the greatest part of the pro-life Christian camp will stand more or less squarely with you on this point, but a certain small subgroup has seen fit to deviate from a truly pro-life stance and hold the life of the unborn child in greater regard than the life of its living, breathing mother. The following are two related links that might be of interest to people who want to pursue this topic further, or at least to see where others with very similar values stand.

http :// www. aafp.org/afp/20000215/1080 .html

This (when the spaces are removed!) is a link to a medical journal, American Family Physician, that gives an overview of ecptopic pregnancies in general, including the risks associated therewith.

http :// whitewashedfeminist. wordpress. com/2008/06/11/the-shoe-is-wrong-on-ectopic-pregnancy/

This blog post was made by a woman who was faced with a terminal pregnancy and is now responding to a statistically-skewed article whose author, by principle, would infer that the writer of this blog post is a murderer for preserving her own life when she knew her baby had no chance of living. The writer deals with this matter with much greater grace than I believe I would, were I in her place. She links to the article she is deconstructing in her own piece.

Dulce Domum said...

Anna,
I think your view on this issue is so very balanced and well thought out. You've said what you needed to say with such good grace and balance.

H and S said...

I might get the following information slightly wrong, since I'm not Catholic myself. But it's useful in this debate - Catholics are often seen as being too black-and-white, forbidding abortion in all circumstances, while other religions allow it when the mother's health is in danger. In fact, Catholic take into account grave risks to the mother's life - but they wouldn't call the procedure 'abortion'.

The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of Double Effect, which in the case of ectopic pregnancy (or other rare situation in which the mother will die as a result of pregnancy) means that removing the baby is allowed. The reasoning is that the intention of the procedure is to save the mother's life, and the death of the baby is a foreseen but unintended and tragic consequence. The procedure must be done with utmost respect toward the baby (no hacking and slashing etc). And the mother can always decline such treatment if she wishes.

The Doctrine of Double Effect is also applied where, for example, a terminally ill patient is in such pain that his dosage of morphine is necessarily so great that it suppresses his breathing and he dies. Primary intention: pain relief. Foreseen side effect: death. If the doctor intends death, then he is guilty of murder.

Bailey said...

I love your blog, Mrs. T, and am so glad I found a strong voice for femininity. I was troubled by this post, though please understand I do not judge you, as this is your law and you obey it faithfully. Please allow me to share my opinion: In the case of medical risk for the mother, to abort or not to abort is, as you know, not a light "yes or no" question. But perhaps the reason children are not seen as a blessing today is because they are denounced "interchangeable"--there can be many children but only one mother. I believe life is life, whether that life is unborn or bearing. David said the Lord knew him even in the womb. To kill the life God created--and He knows what He has created, we know--could be called murder. I agree wholeheartedly humans are not able to judge whose life is more important. So how can we be certain which life is worth keeping--the mother's or the child's? Would it not be best to trust the Lord in this matter, and if He deems it His will to take either or both, it will be in no hands but His? If we continue to judge worthiness by medical status, I wonder how many more medical "reasons" there will be to abort children.

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."--or children.

Thank you for letting me share my thoughts, Mrs. T! God bless you.

Karen said...

I had a friend who was one of those "extremely rare" cases where her life was actually in danger during the pregnancy. She had uterine cancer and it was spreading. The doctors begged her to abort so she could take chemo, but she wouldn't do it. She decided that she would go ahead and risk her life for her child. Her daughter was born prematurely but she is now a very healthy little girl. Not everything is black and white, but I believe if you trust God then He will guide you in the right paths.

The sister of a friend of mine was infertile for I think 2 years after going off the pill. Another concieved while on it and her child was born with autism. I found an incredibly interesting study from UCLA proving a link between pill use and autism, but when I went back to the website it had been deleted! Something very fishy in that!!

Chelsea said...

I'm wondering if people are aware of Natural Family Planning/Fertility Awareness Method for child spacing/birth control/pregnancy achievement.

Most people I talk to have either never heard of it, or assume it's synonymous with the Rhythm method, which it's not.

It involves checking and charting your cervical fluid and basal body temperature every day to determine when in your cycle you are fertile, for the purpose of timing intercourse in order to avoid or achieve pregnancy.

My husband and I have been using it as our exclusive form of birth control since we got married two years ago (We're waiting to have children until we both graduate from college). Personally, though, I think every woman should be aware of it, even those who aren't sexually active, or have no desire to decide when to conceive. Charting my cycles has given me an awareness of what's happening in my body I have never known before. I know when I'm ovulating, how long my luteal phase is, I always know when my period is about to arrive, although my cycles aren't always the same length, and I never have to wonder if I'm pregnant, because my chart would show it. There's just such a sense of awe, knowing all the myriad things that are happening throughout my cycle.

Sorry to preach, I just want more people to be aware that there are options other than hormones, barriers, and chemicals. Also, I think if we taught our daughters the whole story of what's happening with their reproductive systems, they would be spared a lot of confusion and self-esteem issues.

Here are a couple of sites with more information:

http://www.gardenoffertility.com
http://tcoyf.com

Anonymous said...

Chelsea,
You took the words out of my mouth! I found NFP to be the most empowering imformation about my body since 5th grade health class. I am very pro-woman, and I feel women are too often kept in the dark about what makes us so special.
My best defense when arguing pro-life is this; Women deserve better than abortion! And I whole heartedly believe it. These are the disturbingly misguided belief about this aspect of 'women's rights'
Got pregnant and you can't afford a baby? - make it go away
Pregnant while in school and you may not have time for it?- make it go away
Boss would fire you for (essentially)being a woman?- make it go away
We deserve so much more than this sorry excuse for a solution!
Let's take back the meaning of women's rights. I have the right to be a woman, as God made me!

Stephanie said...

I'm a Christian and I'm pro-life because we are created in God's image, every one of us. Every human being is precious to God, even in the womb. Psalm 139 portrays this beautifully. It's interesting that this Psalm doesn't point out that a human only becomes a human when the heart starts to beat...

Anonymous said...

Hi Anna,

I think you should take a look at this. It might change your mind and make you against abortion in any circumstance.


http://www.unmaskingchoice.ca/abortion_facts.html

Amanda said...

Anonymous, I've seen pics like that before. They are horrifying. Perhaps next time, though, a warning could be given? I'm trying to conceive, had a chemical pregnancy (very early miscarriage) last month, and these pics are a little much before breakfast!

Buffy said...

A good post Anna.

Annonymous - you're not playing fair. Why not show the pictures of women who died in agony from ectopic pregnancies that weren't dealt with?

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