Rabbi Ze’ev Smason in St. Louis Jewish Link: Choose life: Jewish law forbids abortion except to save the mother
April 3, 2024

by Rabbi Ze’ev Smason in the St. Louis Jewish Link

Dear Rabbi,

My husband and I just found out we’re expecting. This pregnancy hasn’t come at the best time; we’re facing difficult financial pressures, and it just doesn’t seem like the right time for us to have a child. Friends have advised me to consider an abortion. Some have said their rabbis teach that a fetus doesn’t become a person until after birth and that, according to Judaism, abortion is “a choice.” However, when I think about terminating the life of our unborn child, my heart tells me that it might not be the right thing to do. What does the Jewish Bible say about abortion?

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Dear Samantha,

I so admire that you look to our 3,300-year-old Torah for moral guidance regarding the consequential decision you face. Before relating the Torah’s stance on abortion, I’d like to share some ideas that Judaism expresses regarding the grandeur and significance of the life growing inside you.

The Divine gift of a soul was given to your child, Samantha, when it was conceived within you. The Talmud identifies this moment of ensoulment in a fascinating dialogue between Rabbi Judah the Prince and the Roman Emperor Antoninus (Sanhedrin 91b). Although the popular joke goes that a Jewish fetus is only considered viable when it gets into medical school, the truth is that Judaism has always believed that life begins at conception, i.e. that the soul — that all-knowing, all-feeling inner self that is the true person — is present at the very beginning of an unborn child’s formation.

Were you aware, Samantha, that the soul you and your husband brought into the world now has a share of the World to Come? Many are unaware that Judaism believes in the afterlife and the eternity of the soul. An infant gains a share of the World to Come from the moment of conception.

Rashi, the preeminent French Medieval Torah elucidator, states:  “ ‘From the time of conception’ — from the time the seed has been conceived in the mother’s womb, even if the mother miscarried and the child is lost, it has a portion in the World to Come” (Sanhedrin 110b). 

The life of your baby began long before he or she will be born. And lest someone attempt to convince you, Samantha, that the question of when life begins is solely an issue of theology or philosophy, please consider just a handful of developmental markers of the child growing inside you.

Your unborn baby’s heart will begin to beat 18 to 21 days after fertilization. At a certain stage, your unborn child will begin to suck his or her thumb for comfort. If you sing or listen to music on loudspeakers during your pregnancy, your baby will be born with a better ability for neuronal encoding of speech sounds. 

The Torah teaches, Samantha, that your unborn child lives an astoundingly robust spiritual life. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) reveals that an angel teaches your unborn child the entire Torah. This means that everything we need to know is inside us: Your yet-born child, in utero, is taught the difference between right and wrong, the purpose of life, how to love and how to reach its potential.

And I’m certain you’ll find it of interest, Samantha, that Jewish law demands that the Sabbath be violated in order to save an unborn life, regardless of its proximity to conception. Given that lifesaving activity is the only situation in which Sabbath restrictions are set aside, were an unborn child considered as simply “fetal tissue” and not considered “alive,” this would be prohibited, not required.

What then, Samantha, about abortion? Jewish law opposes abortion except in cases of danger to the mother. Times may change, but the Torah’s eternal values and truth never change.

Most Torah authorities consider feticide an act of murder. Even the most permissive opinions of Torah scholars reserve abortion for extreme situations that no woman should ever experience. However, the tragic fact remains that in the United States, nearly 95% of abortions are performed on healthy children being carried by healthy mothers.

Don’t be misled, Samantha, by those who misrepresent biblical passages in order to promote the idea that abortion should be regarded as simply a “choice.”  Jewish law is based on the theological presumption that a human being does not possess total ownership of one’s body: Our bodies belong to God. We are His stewards of our bodies. And we are stewards of His children, both those already born and of those conceived but not yet born. 

Samantha, I suggest you listen to your heart. It is telling you that the child you are carrying is a gift, arguably the greatest gift God can grant us. As you begin your pregnancy, rejoice in being a sacred repository — like a Holy Ark containing a Torah Scroll — of a yet-born child with a precious soul who is of inestimable value in God’s eyes.

As you and your husband deal with the challenges of raising your child, may your decision to choose life for your unborn child bless you both with abundant joy and nachas for the rest of your lives.

With blessings, 

— Rabbi

Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Link

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