As a Jew in the United States, I’m pretty used to accommodating other people’s religious beliefs over my own. I have attended school during Jewish holidays, gone on family vacations during the available Christmas breaks despite not celebrating Christmas, and attended community events at my school that were pretty influenced by Christian tradition. Generally, none of this infringes on my religious freedom. People understand when I need to attend synagogue for holidays or need dietary accommodations such as not eating pork. Despite my minority status as a Jew, I manage to find harmony with the culture that surrounds me.
But recently, that harmony was disrupted. Since Roe v. Wade was overturned, over 20 U.S. states have enacted new anti-abortion laws. Many of these laws infringe on the religious freedom of Jews.
Because many people are likely not familiar with Jewish teachings on abortion, I would like to explain what our texts say.
First of all, let’s look at the question of when life begins. The main Jewish holy book, the Torah, contains verses in Exodus that describe the appropriate punishments for certain crimes. If someone murders another person, by accident or on purpose, the punishment is death. If someone injures a pregnant woman and causes her to miscarry, however, the punishment is only a financial penalty, even if the act was intentional. Many modern scholars extrapolate from this passage that abortion, like miscarriage, is not a homocide, and that a fetus is not a person.
Another crucial Jewish text, the Mishnah — the oldest postbiblical collection and codification of Jewish oral laws — says that an abortion should always be performed if it would save the life of the mother. It even gives instructions on how to perform one. This text doesn’t just encourage abortion in this case; it mandates it. The only time that a life-saving abortion shouldn’t be performed is if the fetus’s head has already emerged. This is when it becomes a living person, and we never lay down the life of one person for another. Many Jewish scholars have further explained that life begins at the first breath. They say that, as God breathed life into Adam, God breathes life into all of us.
Finally, a Jewish law called tza’ar gufah kadim, or “her welfare is primary,” allows abortion in cases where the pregnancy is harming the mother. Let’s say a pregnant woman seeks an abortion because her baby would be born with a disability, and she wants to protect her future child from suffering. Based on this Jewish law, a rabbi would not approve of the abortion, because we do not know for sure whether the child would suffer. However, if the woman wanted the abortion because her pregnancy was causing her anguish, then a rabbi would allow the abortion. While the suffering of the unborn fetus is an unknown potential, the suffering of the mother is a present reality. The mother deserves compassion.
These are just a few verses and laws from Jewish text that support and even require abortion. Of course, not all Jews interpret these texts the same way. Orthodox Jews believe that abortion should happen in very rare cases. Only about 10% of American Jews are Orthodox, however. The Conservative and Reform movements, on the other hand, collectively make up the majority of affiliated American Jews. The Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the Conservative movement, has officially supported abortion rights since 1983, and condemned the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The Central Conference of American Rabbis, which represents Reform Jews, similarly denounced the Supreme Court decision. So, even if anti-abortion laws align with the beliefs of some Jews, they still violate the religious freedom of the majority of Jews in America.
I do not intend to argue that one religion or the other is “correct” about when life begins, because I do not presume to know the answers to these big questions about the universe. I also do not think that any one religion should have authority about when abortion should be allowed. What is more important is to respect people’s First Amendment right to their own religious beliefs and their right to make personal choices accordingly.