Here’s a story I’ve heard all my life: Before my grandmother gave birth to my mother prematurely nearly 87 years ago, the doctor came to see my grandfather and told him he might have to choose between the life of his wife or that of his unborn child. My grandfather, the son of a rabbi, immediately decided to save his wife, the mother. My grandmother gave birth to my mother with complications, but both mother and child survived.
Here’s another family story: My paternal grandmother tried to abort herself. There were whispers that her brother, a doctor, intervened medically on her behalf. My grandmother was thrown into cold showers and told to ‘pull herself together’ as she squatted in a dark abyss of anxiety and depression. She endured a crude version of electroconvulsive therapy, losing her memory but regaining some of her life. In the end, none of this was his choice.
Twenty-seven years ago, I obtained the safe and legal abortion denied to my grandmother. I had a 6 month old daughter and was struggling emotionally as a new mother. I knew I couldn’t handle two babies within 15 months of each other. More importantly, I was worried about my daughter not being able to be the mother I wanted and needed to be for her. My decision was heartbreaking, but I remember that troubled time as my Judaism unequivocally supported my choice not to have children. My health, which included mental health, was a priority, as was my life in all its facets and complexities.
Last week, the Boston Globe reported: “The Reproductive Privacy Protection Act of 2019 protects the right to abortion in Rhode Island, but high costs, limited clinics and other issues make access to services difficult or impossible for many women.” Despite Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic quote, the moral universe arc does not currently lean toward justice.
Given the shocking but not unexpected news last week that the Supreme Court will almost certainly quash Roe v. Wade, which has been the law of the land for nearly half a century, I researched what different branches of Judaism and community organizations had to say about abortion and reproductive freedom.
Let me contextualize these views, which are not as far apart as one might think: A 2015 Pew Research Center survey found that 83% of American Jews strongly support legalized abortion. Jews were the first among other religious groups in the survey to say that “abortion should be legal in all/most cases”. This is not to say that there are no outright gradations and differences between the branches of Judaism. But everyone seems to consider the mother’s life the highest priority. This is supported by the fact that, unlike abortion opponents and right-to-life Christian sects, rabbinical sources do not consider life beginning at conception or believe that a fetus enjoys the same protections as human beings. Again, interpretations vary.
In some of the internet rabbit holes I have fallen into, I learned that there is biblical precedent in Exodus that informs Jewish abortion law. Exodus 21:22-23 relates the case of two men who fight and abort a woman. The verse says that if no other harm is done to the woman, the person who caused the miscarriage is responsible for the damages. But if there is more evil, he must be put to death. “Other harm” is not specified. This brings us to the rabbinical idea that the loss of a fetus is property damage rather than murder. Like many rabbinic opinions, it has a sharp tone.
Over the decades, non-Orthodox faiths have consistently supported maintaining the legality and accessibility of abortion. the Union for Reform JudaismPublic advocacy of the mother began as early as 1958, when the rabbinate asserted that abortion is permitted in cases where the mother’s mental well-being is an issue – they noted that there is a “strong preponderance of the medical opinion that the child will be born physically and even mentally. In 1985, the movement formally extended this opinion to cases of rape or incest.
The rabbinical assemblythe halachic or legal seat of the conservative movement, also understands that the threat to a mother’s life includes psychological conditions. In 1983 the assembly declared that abortion was permitted “if the continuation of the pregnancy may cause serious physical or psychological harm to the mother, or if the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion to be seriously defective”.
Orthodox opinion on abortion is highly nuanced and in many cases judged on a case-by-case basis. Some Orthodox rabbinical sources allow abortion when “a mother’s health is in danger even if her life is not in danger; when it is conclusively determined that a fetus suffers from serious abnormalities; when a mother’s mental health is at risk; or when the pregnancy is the result of a prohibited sexual union. However, it is crucial to understand that Orthodox rabbis do not unanimously endorse these exceptions. Many of them prefer to judge cases individually rather than pronouncing fixed laws.
There has also been Jewish community support for access to abortion. These groups include the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s International, hadassa and the Jewish Public Affairs Council. Moreover, the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League joined amicus briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of abortion access.
Jeremy Burton, Executive Director of the Council on Jewish Community Relations of Greater Boston (JCRC), said in a recent interview with WGBH Radio that Jews “do not necessarily take the position of conservative Christians that life begins at conception. This belief is not a scientific data point. In the Jewish tradition, we have a different approach to understanding the beginning of life, and a different approach to understanding how to balance the value of the fetus and the value of the pregnant person. He added: “I think it’s disconcerting, even almost disorienting, to realize that we’re at a point where part of this long arc of history seems to be bending backwards.”
Three years after my abortion, I had a beautiful son. The moment I held him in my arms, I knew he completed our family.