|Ask Rabbi Simmons|
What do Jews believe about birth control and abortion? Does it differ for orthodox,
conservative, and reform Jews?
the use of contraceptives is not allowed. The basic Jewish idea is that the one
who does the family planning is God.
However, there are circumstances when birth control is not only permitted, but advisable. There are a variety of factors, most importntly the parents' emotional and physical state. A rabbi would have to weigh the factors to determine what method of birth control should be used, and for how long should it be used.
As for abortion: Nobody disputes a woman's "free choice" over her body - to cut her hair, or to undergo lyposuction if she chooses. On the other hand, everybody agrees that there are limits to "choice" - i.e. a woman does not have the right to commit murder.
So the abortion debate really comes down to one basic question: Does abortion constitutes murder? In other words, does a fetus have the status of human life?
The Jewish position is a rational, middle ground, taking into account both the quest for spiritual greatness and the realities of everyday life.
In Jewish law, a baby attains becomes a full-fledged human being when the head emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a "partial life."
So is it permitted to destroy this partial life?
Generally, no. This is illustrated by a case in the Talmud whereby a building collapsed on Shabbat. The rescue crew does not know if anyone is trapped under the rubble or not. And even if someone is trapped, they may already be dead. Despite these doubts, we push aside the restrictions of Shabbat in order to dig out the rubble - on the chance that it may result in the prolonging of human life. Why? Because every part of human life - even a doubtful, partial human life - has infinite value.
This applies to a fetus as well.
However, there can be certain factors which may create an exception. For example, when partial life threatens a full life. The Talmud discusses a case where doctors say that if the mother continues with the pregnancy, she will die. In such a case, we kill the fetus in order to save the mother. Why? Because when the partial life of the fetus is weighed against the full life of the mother, we give precedence to saving the full life.
Our question now is where to draw the line? What constitutes a "threat to the mother?"
As a general guideline, if the fetus poses a real danger to the mother - i.e. the pregnancy will aggravate a heart condition or will cause the mother to go blind - then there is room for discussion.
What about danger to emotional health? There are certain circumstances where this, too, may be grounds for abortion. For example, if the mother became pregnant through rape, and the thought of bearing this child will cause her a nervous breakdown or severe emotional trauma.
There are other factors as well, including whether the pregnancy is in the first 40 days or not. But the bottom line is that each case must be decided individually by a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law.
* * *
Western society has slipped far from this Torah value. Of the approximately 2 million abortions performed annually in the United States, about 75 percent are attributed to matters of convenience (i.e. having a baby would interfere with the mother's school or work), or to financial considerations (i.e. a baby is not affordable at this time).
In Judaism, these constitute unacceptable reasons for killing the "partial life" fetus. When one's parents become old and require costly medication, should we then kill them also for financial considerations?!
Or how about when a fetus is diagnosed as having birth defects? Some argue that abortion of a handicapped fetus spares the child a "poor quality of life." Yet who said that having one arm constitutes a poor quality of life?! Should the mother of Stephen Hawking (the world's leading astrophysicist who is near-fully paralyzed) have made a decision that his was a life not worth living? Every time someone loses a limb in an accident, should we kill them?!
Or how about mental retardation? If a set of highly intelligent parents are appalled to discover that their fetus has an IQ of "only" 100, is abortion justified?
Judaism says that this type of selection process is evil. It hearkens to the Nazi program called "T-4," which systematically set out to kill all physically and mentally disabled persons.
By contrast, the Torah teaches that the true value of a person is his soul. The great 20th century sage the Chazon Ish used to stand up in respect when a person with Downs Syndrome came into the room. He explained that to have been given such limitations, the soul of this person must be very great, having come into this world to complete the process of perfection in this unique way.
Ask any parents of a handicapped child and they will tell you that their child is precious - irrespective of "performance."
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If the issue of abortion seems morally clear, so why is there such a bitter public debate?
Often it is difficult to accept responsibility for the consequences of actions. When you get behind the wheel of a car, there are a variety of risks involved. Even if you are careful, you might accidentally run somebody over and kill them. And you'd have to live with that consequence.
So too, when a man and woman engage in intercourse, there are a variety of risks involved - among them transmitted diseases, emotional attachment, and pregnancy. It is not a question of being careful. It's a question of taking responsibility for one's actions.
So what's the right thing to do. In the absence of severe health danger, a woman must carry the fetus to full term. With 1-in-6 American couples infertile, giving up the baby for adoption is an obvious option. (Of course, a Jewish mother who opts for adoption should stipulate that the child ends up in a Jewish home.)
I hope this has been helpful.
Rabbi Shraga Simmons