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Abortion and Religion

Copyright © 1997, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2012, 2022 by David E. Ross

The triumph of politics and religion over medical science under President George W. Bush was well documented in a 60 Minutes segment that broadcast on 27 November 2005. Over-the-counter sale of Plan B — a morning-after birth control pill — was blocked by Bush's political appointees in the Food and Drug Administration despite strong scientific evidence that the pill is both effective and safe.

The broadcast showed pharmacists refusing to fill doctor prescriptions for Plan B because they claim it is an abortion pill. To them, even an undivided fertilized egg not yet implanted in a womb is a baby. This is an imposition of the pharmacist's religion on those whose religious beliefs are different.

The broadcast also described how Catholic hospitals in New York refuse to advise rape victims about the availability of Plan B despite state laws mandating such advice.

Many of these attempts to make Plan B unavailable would, of course, result in actual abortions.

Under President Obama, the FDA reversed its decision and made Plan B available without prescription. However, that applies only to adult women. The religious right exerted sufficient pressure to deny Plan B to teenaged girls.

The movement to prohibit abortion brings together two distinct forces, those politicians who would wrap themselves in the blanket of religion to be elected and those religious individuals who would use the force of government — including the enactment of criminal laws — to accomplish what they cannot obtain through sermons from the pulpit.

Arguments for prohibiting abortion generally reflect the following:

A close analysis of these arguments indicates they reflect religious dogma that are not universally shared by all religions. In the following tabulation, these arguments are compared with Jewish philosophy. Note, however, that other religions share some of these principles with Judaism, contrary to the arguments against abortion.

The Argument Jewish Philosophy
Abortion is the murder of a baby.

(The use of the words murder and baby imply that a fetus is a human life.)

For a life to be human, it must have a soul. The soul does not enter the body until the first breath of air at birth. Genesis 2:7 tells us:
God formed man out of dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils a breath of life. Man became a living creature.
Jewish philosophy holds that the "breath of life" was Adam's soul. We also read
The soul that You have given me, 0 God, is pure! You have created it. You have formed it. You have breathed it into me, and within me You sustain it. So long as I have breath, therefore, I will give thanks to You, my God and the God of all ages, Source of all creation, loving Guide of every human spirit.

A morning prayer in Gates of Repentance
CCAR, 1996

Thus, the soul does not enter the body until the first breath after being born. Before then, a fetus is merely a potential human, not an actual human. Therefore, abortion involves neither murder nor a baby.

Note that the soul does not necessarily enter the body even at birth. Thus, a stillborn baby or a baby who dies within the first weeks of life does not normally receive a Jewish funeral. Funerals for aborted fetuses conducted by anti-abortion activists are contrary to Jewish tradition. If the fetus is from a Jewish woman, such a funeral is an insulting intrusion by gentile dogma into that woman's life.

Abortion is the destruction of an innocent life.

(Characterizing a fetus as innocent implies that the mother is tainted with sin.)

In many ways, Judaism has a quite different view of sin and innocence than Christianity. There are several problems in Jewish philosophy with this characterization of a fetus as more innocent than its mother:
  • Being a thinking person who has experienced life (even the pleasure of sexual intercourse, which is a blessed gift from God) does not make someone sinful.
  • When a disordered pregnancy threatens the health or life of a woman, a fetus that can kill its mother is not innocent.
In this case, innocence is really not a significant issue in Judaism. What is significant is an individual with a soul who can establish a personal relationship with God. A woman can be such an individual; a soulless fetus cannot.
A mother's control over her pregnancy must be subordinate to the right of her baby to live. A fetus's life is subordinate to its mother's life:
  • A woman who has established a personal relationship with God is superior to a fetus that does not yet have a soul and thus cannot have a relationship with God.
  • When a woman has a husband and already has a living, breathing child, the needs of her family make her life far more important than the life of any potential child. The right of a exiting child already born to have a healthy mother has a far higher priority than the right of a fetus to be born.
  • When a woman's pregnancy threatens her health, abortion is religiously approved.
  • When a woman's pregnancy threatens her life, abortion is mandated. Protecting the life of the living, breathing woman is a commandment of God that has priority over other commandments. Refusing an abortion to save her life, a woman is committing the sin of suicide.

We must recognize that attempts to legislate against abortion are based on a desire to impose the dogma of some religions onto those religions that tolerate abortion. These attempts are not only intolerant but also arrogant in that they deny the legitimacy of the contrary religious philosophies of other individuals. Opponents against abortion must be made to recognize that they do not own the only true path to God's grace.

Todd Akin — Republican candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri in the 2012 election — proclaimed his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape. Akin claims that a woman suffering "legitimate rape" (Akin's phrasing) cannot become pregnant. Gynocologists and obstetricians almost universally reject that claim, citing pregnancy rates among raped women equal to rates among women having occasional consensual intercourse.

A 19th-century rabbi, Yehuda Perilman, ruled that a raped woman has the right to abort because, unlike "mother earth," she need not nurture seed planted within her against her will; indeed, she may "uproot" seed illegally sown.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

In any case, I cannot imagine any rape being legitimate (according to law; lawful; in accordance with established rules, principles, or standards).

Judaism is not alone in declaring abortion is not necessarily a sin. Representatives of the following religious organizations joined together as long ago as 1973 to establish the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) under the slogan "Pro-faith, pro-family, pro-choice":

Episcopal Church

Presbyterian Church (USA)

United Church of Christ

United Methodist Church

Conservative Judaism

Humanist Judaism

Reconstructionist Judaism

Reform Judaism

Other Jewish Organizations

Ethical Culture

Unitarian Universalist

Caucuses and Other Organizations

The list above is only a sample of the relgious organizations that belong to RCRC.

In preparation for the 2000 Republican National Convention, the Republican's Platform Committee met. As with prior presidential elections the Republican platform contains a plank vowing to amend the United States Constitution to prohibit abortions. One Platform Committee member stated that she was doing God's work to save babies.

Again, we see the issue at a very basic level. Politicians attempting to impose a specific religious belief on the rest of us. Prohibiting abortion is not doing the work of my God, who would rather see a women live than allow a pregnancy to kill her. And a prohibition would not save human babies, simply because fetuses do not yet have human souls.

This Republican campaign plank reappeared for the 2004, 2008, and 2012 presidential elections.

I have been questioned about my assertion that the soul does not enter the body until the breath of life. I quote from Responsa CARR 32-34 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which represents rabbis in Reform Judaism throughout North America. This responsa (a rabbinic statement of religious principle in response to a question about Jewish belief) was actually about whether a cloned human can have a soul. However, this paragraph is quite clear in its broader scope, including its application to questions about abortion.

We should divide this question into two segments. First we must deal with the question of when a soul enters the human body. There are a number of midrashic and halakhic responses to this, but the practical halakhic implication is that a baby becomes a person only at the moment of birth. Therefore, if a woman in labor can not give birth, and her life is endangered, it is permissible to destroy the child as long as its head has not come out of the womb. Until that time it is considered an integral part of the woman, and so may be treated like any other limb of the body rather than a separate human being (M. Ohalot 7.6, Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 425.2).

(The references at the end are to works of Jewish philosophy and practices several centuries old.)

Updated 14 June 2022

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