The Case for Life
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore, choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed (Deut. 30:19).”
The above quote is quite relevant immediately following the annual March for Life in Washington DC on January 27th, as the United States Congress takes the first steps to defunding Planned Parenthood, and as a likely pro-life judge has been nominated to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Given all of this, I want to make the case for why both Jewish Law and Jewish tradition favors a world free of abortion.
First, the question many in the YU community, especially those supporting abortion rights, will undoubtedly ask is “what does halakha say about it?” First, there is an absolute prohibition of murder in the Torah, to the point where we have to sacrifice our own lives rather than take another life. There is a universal agreement (Hayim Donin, To Be a Jew, 140-141) among the poskim (Jewish legal decisors) that elective abortion is absolutely prohibited by halakha. While there is debate among various poskim regarding which circumstances warrant such a procedure, I will bring forth an opinion that I believe should be the model for a paradigm shift in the way we treat the topic: that of the Rambam.
The Rambam (Maimonides) absolutely prohibited abortion, classifying it as murder, except under the following very limited circumstance: if the mother’s life is in danger, and there is no other way to save her. It could even then be argued that such a situation is not considered abortion at all, but rather, simply intervening to save the mother’s life, an action legal even in Ireland where abortion has been outlawed. This opinion is also held by R’ Moshe Feinstein and R’ Issar Unterman.
Here’s the reason why this opinion should be the basis for our meta-halakhic discourse of the issue: our mesorah, tradition, demands of us to respect every single human life.
In contrast to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, who supported aborting children of color and children with special needs, our tradition recognizes that every single human being is created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God), and is therefore afforded an irrevocable right to life. It cannot be understated just how much the Matriarchs, Sarah, Rivka and Rachel, appreciated the worth of all human life. These three women each faced a struggle with infertility, and prayed intensely for the opportunity to bring new life into the world. Another example of such a woman is Chana, whose prayer for a child is considered to be the basis for prayer in our day and age.
Many of the more lenient opinions in halakha were based on a very different reality that is increasingly not present today. We take it for granted that we live in a time where, due to tremendous advances in reproductive technology, childbirth is safer today than at any point in human history. We forget that, not too long ago, childbirth was a traumatic and potentially life-endangering ordeal and many women tragically died as a result. Today, such occurrences are becoming increasingly rare. Despite this, abortion is still unfortunately too common in the United States, where more than 1,000,000 children per year will not see the light of day.
This begs the question: By continuing to debate whether halakha permits abortion or not, are we asking the wrong question? Instead, perhaps we should be asking what more can we do to lessen the need for abortion. If that is our goal, then there is much we can do to start. Increasing access to prenatal care, family planning, and affordable child-care, strengthening child-support requirements, and ensuring justice for survivors of sexual violence, are just a few of the things that could eliminate the need for abortion.
As all these things happen on Capitol Hill and in various state legislatures, the humanity of the unborn, this is the discussion we must have in our own communities. The days of allowing Planned Parenthood to profit off the exploitation of women are about to come to an end. This is where we, as b’nai Torah (children of the Torah), must come in by volunteering, advocating, and yes, continuing to debate the ramifications of this new reality. It’s time to start creating the ultimate world that Hashem has planned for us, which includes a true culture of life and an end to all death and suffering, including by those who are voiceless and most vulnerable.