Far too often lately, our government leans on religion as an excuse to usurp our individual liberties. For example, the federal government recently announced a decision to roll back employer-mandated contraceptive services, in favor of employers’ religious and moral beliefs.
This rollback was framed as a win for religious liberty. It is more accurate to say it was a win for a particular religious agenda. While it may be true that some major religions frown on the use of contraception, it is not true for Judaism, which both encourages reproduction and supports the use of contraception.
We need not look further than Jewish legal texts from the third century, where contraception is permitted for the sake of a woman’s health, to see that this framing is incorrect. While Jewish law obligates men to reproduce, women are not under the same obligation because pregnancy and birth can be life-threatening. One cannot be obligated to perform a commandment that would put one’s life at risk.
Education has also served as a means of justifying contraceptives among diverse Jewish populations. Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbinic scholar and doctor, recognized the importance of a man pursuing advanced Torah education and permitted him to delay marriage until he completed his studies. More recently, demographic data about Jews in the 20th century reveal that education and socioeconomic status have been a significant factor in determining contraceptive use. Particularly among Jewish women in the 1950s and 1960s, an increase in education led to a drop in fertility rates as women postponed childbearing until their 30s.
Support for contraception does not detract from Judaism’s pro-natalist values. The two are not mutually exclusive.
My own research on reproduction in the charedi, or ultra-Orthodox, Jewish community in Jerusalem reveals a strong correlation between economic concerns and childbearing. As the primary breadwinners in this community, women are increasingly aware of the stress that another child places on their finances. Since the Israeli government decreased the stipends allotted to large families in the early 2000s, birth rates have begun to drop, and women are cognizant of the prominent use of hormonal birth control among their friends and family.
Support for contraception does not detract from Judaism’s pro-natalist values. The two are not mutually exclusive. Examples from Judaism demonstrate that it is possible to both support reproduction and access to contraception.
Some of the first stories of the Jewish tradition are preoccupied with the infertility of the matriarchs, who take it upon themselves to enable procreation through folk medicine and surrogates. From the barren matriarch Rachel’s desperate plea to her husband, Jacob, “Give me children or I will die” (Genesis 30:1), to widespread use of assisted reproductive technologies among Jews in Israel, the fear of infertility looms large, and Judaism abounds with examples of facilitating reproduction. Today, Jewish law has accommodated a wide variety of technological and scientific advancements in reproduction.
But Jewish pro-natalist values do not stand alone. They are constantly balanced, both on a legal and an anthropological level, with concerns facing individuals and families on a daily basis. This balance has led to varied and nuanced perspectives regarding contraception, family planning, abortion and the use of assisted reproductive technologies. Reproductive rights, therefore, reflect a weighing of many competing values. This was just as true among rabbis in the third century as it is among Jews living all over the world today.
The overwhelming sentiment in Jewish reproductive rights is to provide every woman with the ability to weigh her multiple considerations on an individual basis. She has a right to prioritize her education, her mental health or the financial stability of her family, even if this means a lower fertility rate. Moreover, it is not relevant whether she prioritizes values through the use of contraception, abortion or reproductive technologies. Judaism recognizes that these decisions cannot be made separate from the realities of one’s life. Now we can only hope that our government will recognize the same.
Michal Raucher is an assistant professor of Judaic studies at the University of Cincinnati. Her research lies at the intersection of Jewish ethics, anthropology of reproduction and women in Judaism.