Judaism can show the way on abortion

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By Donna Robinson Divine

On the issue of abortion, the war over words is more lethal than the conflict over deeds. Even the terms used are antithetical to each other. A self-named “culture of life” is arrayed against so-called warriors for “choice” and a woman’s right to decide whether or when to end a pregnancy.


Donna Robinson Divine
(via JNS.org)

Surveys indicate, however, that most Americans think about abortion in ways that are not typified by heated discourse or morally irreconcilable positions. They are not engaged in the kind of debate that pushes politicians to choose one uncompromising side or another. Ordinary men and women reject the idea that terminating a pregnancy is murder, but also believe abortion should not occur during the third trimester unless there is a danger to the mother’s life.

Roe v. Wade placed strict limits on abortion restrictions, and thus it is often held responsible for stirring up rhetorical hostilities. With sovereignty over abortion law returned to the people through state elections and legislation, politicians will now have to campaign in a new age without a Constitutional right at stake. Candidates still blinded by a discourse that rewards the ideological extremes may face a reckoning with voters who see common ground and want regulations that reflect it.


It would be an understatement to say that it is extremely difficult to turn a diverse assembly of views on abortion into laws across 50 very different states. This is particularly the case because the debate is often defined by ricocheting hashtags and media horror stories. There is one tradition, however, that offers both hope and guidance.

Jewish teaching recognizes abortion as an intimate practice with profound public consequences. The tradition that brought the words l’chaim (“to life” or, more properly, “for the sake of life”) into public discourse can hardly be accused of insensitivity to a culture that embraces life and promotes fertility.

Yet Judaism also displays sensitivity to the ethical dilemmas surrounding decisions to end pregnancies. Because there is no absolute agreement on abortion in Jewish religious law, those who deem abortion impermissible generally refrain from applying their own jurisprudential principles to particular cases. Rather, women confronted with an unwanted pregnancy are advised to work their way to a decision by talking to their own clerics.

Judaism also acknowledges that people should not be used as foils to advance a religious ruling. Even in a context where population growth was pivotal to Jewish political interests — Mandatory Palestine — where Zionist leaders could not avoid thinking seriously about Jewish birthrates, abortion was available and practiced, despite being outlawed by Great Britain’s colonial laws.

The apparent consensus on abortion calls into question the conceit of a discourse in thrall to the language of rights; a discourse applied as frequently to the unborn as to women moments before they are able to deliver a healthy child. Just as a culture of life can allow for abortion, so can a right to choose be replaced by access to services accompanied by some restrictions.

Most people recognize that giving birth involves two lives, and that it is critical for those faced with an unwanted pregnancy to be able to make their own decision. A culture of life is not only about a heartbeat.

Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar family professor of Jewish studies and professor of government, emerita at Smith College. Via JNS.org.

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