Judaism is pro-life: the notion of pikuach nefesh–of saving a life–is paramount, overriding other ritual obligations. For example, if you can’t fast on Yom Kippur for health reasons, then not only should you not fast, but it is a “sin” to fast.
And because of this commitment to life, when it comes to the abortion debates, Judaism is pro-choice. If the life of the mother is threatened either physically or emotionally, or if the child when born would tragically not be viable, then Jewish tradition and practice permits a woman to terminate the pregnancy.
It has been distressing to read the news out of Alabama this past week as the state legislature passed and the Governor signed the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest, and makes it a felony for a provider to perform an abortion. The law is distressing for a number of reasons: it does not allow women to control their own bodies or reproductive choices, and it violates the relationship between a patient and a doctor.
But perhaps what is most distressing about this law and others like it, is that they are enshrining in law one religious perspective of when life begins over and above others, thus their enactment is a violation of the principle of religious liberty that we, especially as Jews, hold dear. These laws privilege one religion above others, and above those who do not practice a religion.
Judaism is clear on having a different definition than Christianity of when life begins. The source of Jewish perspectives is found in the Torah, in the book of Exodus, chapter 21:
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.
In other words, the compensation for the miscarriage is financial. The Torah is clear in other places that in the case of murder, the punishment is death. The fact that the Torah does not stipulate that the one who pushed the pregnant woman thus causing the death of the fetus is not subject to capital punishment is understood to mean that the fetus does not represent a separate person, but rather part of the mother.
This gets played out most often in a contemporary context in the situation in which a pregnant woman converts to Judaism. The child is then born Jewish and does not require their own conversion. Prior to birth, the fetus is considered part of the mother, and the change in Jewish status affects it at the same time it affects her.
There is a vast literature in the Jewish interpretive tradition that goes into more discussion and detail about these issues. But in short, personhood, in Judaism, begins at birth, not at conception.
This is not to say that Judaism condones or encourages abortion, but rather permits it in a way that other faith traditions may not. So by not allowing a Jewish women to exercise her religious beliefs regarding the beginning of life, and make a choice about whether or not to terminate a pregnancy, the State of Alabama and others are violating her religious liberty.
The separation of church and state in our country has always been a fuzzy line. One’s spiritual and moral perspectives are going to inform one’s approach to law and legislation. At the same time, we need to be sure that we allow for different perspectives and expressions of faith in our public sphere.
This sometimes involves maintaining a legal right, even if one chooses not to exercise it. In the case of abortion, the Jewish communal view is that we need to maintain its accessibility, even if one chooses not to have one.