It’s been a challenging, uplifting, infuriating, and inspiring few weeks for women. We’ve had a chance to hear from a number of thinkers and politicians on “both sides of the aisle,” and we have seen each person’s true colors when it comes to his/her thoughts about women’s rights. Ever since Representative Todd Akin’s abhorrent statement about “legitimate rape,” reproductive rights have been at the forefront of many people’s minds going into the two National Conventions.
I find it painfully hard to believe that we had to defend birth control, the right to adequate health care for women, and women’s right to choose in the year 2012. Women are not just a “special interest group;” rather, we are half of the ENTIRE population. Our needs, hopes, dreams, fears, and worries must be important to all. It was baffling, back in February, when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee met to discuss birth control exceptions with regards to the Conscience Clause. The panel which discussed birth control consisted entirely of men – could they not find a single woman to join them and express the medical, personal, or religious reasons to support birth control access? This, of course, led to Sandra Fluke’s testimony to the Democratic members of the panel, which caused Rush Limbaugh to make his infamous statements, calling Fluke a “slut.” It’s at times like that when I can’t believe this is the reality in which we live.
Luckily, I am able to take a deep, reassuring breath, when I remember that I am a proud member of the Reform Movement of Judaism, which has consistently advocated for women’s reproductive rights. Not only that, but Judaism as a whole has been significantly “pro-choice” for centuries. All life is sacred, and we must do what we can to take care of the unborn fetus, but we have always placed greater import on the life of the mother. The fetus has never been considered to be a “life” (nefesh) until after it is born. During the first forty days following conception, the fetus is considered “mere fluid.” (Yebamot 69b). The reasoning for these ideas goes back to Exodus 21:22, which states, “And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.” Thus, the injury to the woman is merely viewed as a loss of property, or as damage to the woman, and is fined as such, rather than as a murder.
Additionally, way back in the time of the Mishnah, the rabbis were concerned for the mother’s health over any other considerations in the case of severe labor: “If a women is in hard labor, one chops up the child in her womb and removes it limb by limb, because the mother’s life takes precedence over the child’s life.” (Mishnah Oholot 7:6) The Sages believed that, just as you may choose to amputate the mother’s limbs in order to save her, so may you choose to abort the fetus to save her life. The fetus in this example was thought to be a “rodef,” in pursuit of the mother’s life (Deuteronomy 25:11f) and endangered her health.[i] If the mother’s health is in danger, then abortion is not only allowed, but it is mandated.
As a result of texts like these, Judaism has tended to be in favor of abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, either physically or mentally. Surely, Judaism believes in the sanctity of life, and does not ever believe in making decisions about pregnancy or abortion without careful thought. Yet, even between 40 days and 27 weeks of pregnancy, Judaism would still allow for abortion when there is the risk of harm to the mother.
As far back as 1929, the Central Conference of American Rabbis released a resolution in which it stated, “We urge the recognition of the importance of the control of parenthood as one of the methods of coping with social problems.” In 1935, the Women of Reform Judaism passed a resolution calling for the lifting of bans on the dissemination of birth control literature. In 1947, the CCAR went further: “[we go] on record as favoring the inclusion of Planned Parenthood services in hospitals and other agencies where this service should be given and urges that the Board of Directors of health and welfare agencies permit their professional staff members to make maximum use of these services as a community health resource.”
In 1967, the Union for Reform Judaism (then the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) passed a resolution, stating, “We commend those states which have enacted humane legislation in this area and we appeal to other states to do likewise and permit abortions under such circumstances as threatened disease or deformity of the embryo or fetus, threats to the physical and mental health of the mother, rape and incest and the social, economic and psychological factors that might warrant therapeutic termination of pregnancy. We urge our constituent congregations to join with other forward looking citizens in securing needed revisions and liberalization of abortion laws.”
The Reform Movement is not alone. Even Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a former member of Israel’s Supreme Rabbinical Court and an honored authority on Jewish law, wrote that there is a legal basis for permitting some abortions when non-lethal harm would be caused by birth. He includes the case of a pregnant mother who is still nursing, a pregnancy that results from adultery, and a pregnancy that results from rape.[ii]
The URJ, WRJ, and CCAR have continued to pass resolutions and write responsa that address our continued support for reproductive rights. ALL Jews of every denomination are responsible for studying the texts, for learning about the important issues, and for making decisions with integrity and knowledge. We should all be involved in the decisions related to health care, and to women’s health care and reproductive justice in particular. We can make choices that are grounded in our religious tradition that are also consonant with what we want for our modern lives.
As the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice states, “I am pro-faith. I am pro-family. I am pro-choice.”
[ii] Thanks to Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser for this information, shared on his blog: http://www.rebjeff.com/1/post/2012/08/rape-abortion-and-judaism.html