Again and again, we read in both Torah and later rabbinic writings on how Judaism values life above all other values. The Torah repeatedly reminds us that human life is precious and a gift from God, most famously in Deuteronomy 30:19, where God through Moses urges Israel to choose life. In later rabbinic writings, capital cases, while legal, are handled so strictly as to raise a question as to whether they could even be applied. In one conversation, for example, in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5), the rabbis tell us why: because life is precious. As it says, “anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world” (those familiar with the Koran will know there is a similar text found in Muslim tradition). And the rabbis exhort us that there are only three circumstances in Judaism one is permitted to become a martyr (that is, die for one’s faith): if one is commanded to commit murder, to commit a sexual crime (such as incest) or to perform public idolatry, one must submit to die instead. That’s it. Otherwise, the traditions of Judaism teach us to live.
Of course, this raises the question of abortion, as those who oppose access to legal abortion in this country often use the term “pro-life”. Often, those who describe themselves as being “pro-life” agonize over the potential life of the fetus growing inside a woman, and seek to protect that potential life. For many, that fetus is, in fact, a person in all respects.
In Judaism, it isn’t so simple. In the Torah, a miscarriage caused by a fight is compensated for financially rather than treated as a capital case (Exodus 21). Throughout the Mishnah and the Talmud (later rabbinic writings), there is a clear sense that, until a child is born, it is an appendage of the mother. A few times, it even describes the fetus as being like a limb or organ of the mother. We are also taught that, if a pregnancy is difficult, the fetus is to be removed as one would perform another operation to save a patient’s life. Mishnah Oholot 7:6 gives us a good sense of this: A woman who was having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus inside her and take it out limb by limb, because her life comes before its life. If most of it had come out already they do not touch it because we do not push off one life for another.
The text is clear: so long as the fetus is potential life, the mother’s life takes precedent, even as late as during delivery. Once the child emerges, however, they are both ‘alive’ and should be treated as such. Maimonides, the great Jewish physician-scholar of the medieval period, concurs, reminding us that if a woman’s pregnancy jeopardizes her life, it must be treated as a rodef, a pursuer, and must be stopped to save her from harm.
The question then becomes, what does “harm”, or “trouble” mean? In the medieval period, we could understand that this meant specifically the physical health of the individual. Today, however, we might understand that idea more broadly. Reform Judaism, for example, understands the classical texts more broadly, that every individuals’ circumstances are different, and that therefore, a woman has a right to choose what happens to her own body, and why. It is worth also noting that abortion has been legal in the Jewish state of Israel for over 40 years and covered by its version of universal health care (with approval), and performed for a variety of reasons.
From this, we might extrapolate a different idea of what it means to be “pro-life” from those who commonly use the phrase. First, that actual life, the life of a person, as well as her health and well-being, takes priority over potential life. Second, that women need to have access to safe, legal and affordable ways to terminate pregnancies when those pregnancies will cause harm. Finally, that ‘harm’ is something only the pregnant woman can really determine for themselves. In this way, we fulfill the words of our Torah, and choose life.