Does Judaism permit abortion?

Artwork by Elhanan ben-Avraham

So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be upon you. – Deuteronomy 19:10

The touchstone upon which the Jewish discussion turns is this Torah portion:

‘When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children (yeledehaare born prematurely but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment. But if a serious injury results, then you must require a life for a life— eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,’ – Exodus 21:22-23

In the Hebrew of that Torah verse the woman’s ‘fetus’ is called a child (yeled- which is always used for a young human), and premature birth is not necessarily the death of the child. Verse 23 refers to the death of the child or of the woman, which prescribes a capital penalty for either case of death (nefesh tahat nephesh). And that discussion is only in the case of an accidental premature birth- how much more when it is b’kavanah– premeditated intentional killing of the child in the womb, the seat of mercy, the rekhem in Hebrew.

“Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, widely considered the leading American halachic authority of the late 20th century, said that the monetary punishment did not necessarily prove that killing an unborn child was not murder — in other words, that the seriousness of a crime could not be derived from its punishment. In his view, abortion would be prohibited even with the knowledge that the child would be born with a life expectancy of just a few years.  But an Israeli contemporary of Feinstein, Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, permitted an abortion in that case. He cited a Talmudic discussion of a fetus who is endangering the life of a mother -which the Sages say can be destroyed, limb by limb, until the moment the baby’s head emerges from the womb. Waldenberg relies on this source to rule that before the baby’s head emerges, the fetus is not considered a person and therefore abortion is not murder.” Rashi comments: “all the time that the fetus has not been born he is not a nefesh [person] and you can kill him to save the mother, but when his head has been born one may not touch him because it is as if he has been born and one does not put aside one person for another.” Rav Waldenberg feels it is clear from Rashi that before birth the fetus is not considered a person and that is why abortion is not considered murder by a Jew.

Ronald Dworkin has written “that human life has an intrinsic, innate value; that human life is sacred just in itself; and that the sacred nature of a human life begins even before the creature whose life it is has movement or sensation or interests or rights of its own. According to this claim, abortion is wrong in principle because it disregards and insults the intrinsic value, the sacred character, of any stage or form of human life…because it does not depend on any particular rights or interests, as opposed to the derivative position, which maintains that fetuses share the basic rights and interests of all humans, including the right not to be killed.”  The permissive stance on abortion in halakhah seems unaffected by the emergence of new technologies such as prenatal ultrasound, which enables one to see clearly the developing fetus and to which we owe the increasing success in treating premature infants. Halakhah was developed in the context of ancient and medieval scientific knowledge and this certainly had an impact on rulings in many areas of the law. “Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances and does not share the view that fully protected human life begins at conception; instead, a fetus attains personhood only at birth. The Talmud even states that before 40 days of gestation, the embryo is “mere water.” Those streams of Rabbinic Judaism permitting abortion have gravely erred.

The Orthodox Jewish view of a baby in the womb not being a viable human life until the moment of birth is founded on the misinterpretation and perversion of the verse in Exodus inherited from some misleading rabbis who have led our people astray into the outer darkness of exile. And for big-hearted vegans, at least an iota of that great compassion reserved for cows, dogs, beavers and small rodents should be left over for the innocent child in the womb, for it is only a human person that can form in the womb of a human, which is truly ‘dam naki’ (innocent blood) which is forbidden to shed. If the child in the womb is not ‘innocent blood,’ then nothing is.

In that we were created as thinking beings, methinks it wise to get our priorities straight regarding the obvious:

‘There are six things which the Lord hates,

Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:

arrogant eyes, a lying tongue,

hands that shed innocent blood…’ Proverbs 6:17

Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made He man.’ Genesis 9:6

‘So innocent blood will not be shed in the midst of your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, and bloodguiltiness be upon you.’ Deuteronomy 19:10

‘You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am YHVH’. Leviticus 18:21

‘My frame was not hidden from You when I was made in secret, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all my days were written in Your book and ordained for me before one of them came to be.’ Psalm 139:16

‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as a prophet to the nations.’ Jeremiah 1:5