While we often reflect upon ancient or contemporary Jewish topics and practices in this column, this month I turn to the pages of our secular newspapers and ask us to consider what our tradition says about an issue that is, somewhat suddenly, of great debate in our country — namely, abortion.
Surprised? I certainly am. Indeed, many of us grew up believing that abortion and the question of whether it should be legal was decided more than forty years ago in our country. Yet, we find our-selves in 2019, once again, re-immersed in a national debate. Perhaps the debate is less about the legality of abortion and more about restrictions around abortion. But, the result, all would agree, is the same – laws are being proposed and passed that restrict access to abortion. The simple goal of these laws is to reduce the number of abortions. Does Jewish tradition have anything to say about abortions? And, more specifically, what is our Conservative – note the capital “C” in Conservative – Jewish approach on this fraught subject?
Indeed, several days ago, the Rabbinical Assembly – the organization of Conservative-affiliated rabbis (like myself) – published a strongly-worded statement declaring, “The Rabbinical Assembly is deeply troubled by the enacting of today’s abortion law in Alabama and believes it should and will be struck down by federal courts. Reproductive freedom is again under assault in our nation, beginning today in Alabama, where the state has effectively banned abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalized the procedure for doctors.”
On what basis does the Rabbinical Assembly – steeped in Jewish tradition – take this position? Some background is necessary: Over the years, many elements of modern life have been considered by the Rabbinical Assembly. We have asked how contemporary realities or technologies should be applied to our traditions, when these technologies could never have been imagined when our ancient texts were written. For example: What are the implications of surrogate parenthood for Jewish status? Can one participate in a minyan via the internet? What is the kosher-status of lab-grown meat?
On the subject of abortion, our committee of Rabbis – called the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards – reviewed the relevant Biblical and Rabbinic sources. The result of this exploration, in summary, suggests that Jewish tradition universally cherishes the sanctity of life, including the potential of life which a pregnant woman carries within her. However, our understanding of our traditional sources concludes that that person-hood and human rights begin with birth and not with conception, as indicated in the Torah (Book of Exodus 21:22-23). In that context, a fetus is not treated as a living person would be. The Rabbinical Assembly specifically allows for abortion in cases where “continuation of a pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.”
The recent statement of the Rabbinical Assembly, responding to national news, broadens the discussion as well, focusing more generally on the importance of ensuring and protecting access to the complete spectrum of reproductive healthcare, including contraception, abortion-inducing devices, and abortions. Denying such access based upon “religious grounds,” would – ironically – be depriving women of their Constitutional right to religious freedom.
I am pleased and proud that our Conservative Movement is so vocal on this particular topic and, more broadly, on issues relevant to our modern lives. To be a Conservative Jew means to balance our respect for tradition with our embracing modernity. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Rabbi Etyan Hammerman