Abortion in Jewish Law

Thursday, 16 June, 2022 - 1:24 pm

One of the most debated topics in this country in the last 50 years is Roe v. Wade. There is a great divide amongst the citizens. The topic is so polarizing that many arguments are so heated that there are times where it actually leads to violence. I am always baffled when I hear of a women’s clinic being bombed by some pro-lifer. Sometimes these bombings actually kill or wound people. I say to myself why is it okay to kill a human being with whom you disagree. The very name pro-life means that you believe in life, so how can killing be justified?

My opinion on the matter is not relevant to this article. This is for educational purposes only. I would also like to point out that each case has its own unique situation, so please do not apply this teaching practically.

What I find truly fascinating about the traditional Jewish stance on abortion is that like many of Judaism’s stances, it is quite nuanced and therefore cannot be pegged into one corner or another. 

We find the first reference to abortion in Genesis. The first book of the Torah states, “One who sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of G d He made man.” While this verse is somewhat ambiguous, the Talmud learns from the words “one who sheds the blood of man through man” is to be explained more accurately translated as “one who sheds the blood of man within man.”

However, things are not that simple when it comes to the Torah. In Exodus there is a verse that states, “Should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarried but there is no fatality (the mother did not die), he shall surely be punished when the woman’s husband makes demands of him, and he shall give [restitution] according to the judges.”
Since the Torah obligates only a monetary fine but not capital punishment, the Torah seemingly views the fetus as property, not as a human life.

The pro-choice quote a section of Talmud that says a fetus is not an independent entity but rather, “a limb of its mother,” so they claim that it is proof that termination is allowed. This is not proper proof however, because halachically one is not permitted to amputate a limb unless it is medically imperative that it be done.

The Mishna (predecessor to the Talmud) teaches that if the fetus is threatening the mother’s life then her life takes precedence over [the fetus’s] life. If, however, the majority of [the fetus] emerged, we may not touch it, for we do not push aside a life in place of another life.”
The Talmud and Maimonides clarify the reasoning as to why an unborn baby may be sacrificed to save the host. He posits that the fetus is a rodef. The Jewish law of rodef states that we are permitted to kill a violent perp who is pursuing a potential victim in order to prevent the victim from being killed. Since the fetus is actively threatening the mother’s life, it can/should be terminated. However, once the fetus’ head has emerged from the birth canal, then the life of the fetus and the life of the mother are on equal footing.

Aside from being a physical threat to the mother, a rodef can also be at times a mental or psychological threat where it ruins the person carrying the fetus. According to many Jewish authorities, rape and incest would be such a case where some rabbinical experts would allow an abortion. There are a number of stories/lessons in the Torah of rape or incest, but we do not see that an abortion was had.

Terminating a pregnancy is probably one of the most complex parts of Jewish law. As we stated earlier, each case is so nuanced, one would have to contact a competent Rabbi who is well versed in these matters. Just as one would seek out a lawyer for legal matters, a dentist for cavities, an oral surgeon for extractions, so too, we must go to a rabbinic expert, and not just any Rabbi to clarify these matters.  


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