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Posts Tagged ‘defining life’

The anti-abortion laws recently passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri have raised a range of objections and questions.  One powerful objection is the legal wording makes it impossible for a 12 year old girl, who was raped, to avoid going through a pregnancy that potentially ruins her entire life.  The most popular question raised about this legislation is if their purpose is to present a case to the Supreme Court in order to overturn Roe v Wade.  These are the perspectives of those who are advocating to protect women’s reproductive rights.

There is, however, another question that needs to be raised about this legislation.  Is it an attempt by those of a very particular evangelical Christian perspective, to undermine religious diversity in the United States? Considering a fetus being aborted to be the same as the murder of 14 year old teenager at a public high school is not a universal religious perspective. The key issue to raise about this group of Christians is do they truly see fetal life the equivalent of life outside of the womb.  In addition, we need to realize there are extremely different religious perspectives defining what is fully formed human life.  To understand this we must look at the Jewish perspective on the various aspects of issues that can be tied to abortion.

Jewish teachings originate from the Torah’s description of a potential incident.  In Exodus 21:22 and 23 we read that if two men have a violent quarrel that results in a pregnant woman loses her fetus, then a fine will be laid upon the man who caused the miscarriage (verse 22).  The very next verse states that if there is further harm, then the punishment is life for a life, eye for an eye, etc.  Generally, further harm is seen as applicable to the woman ergo, “life for a life” means the death penalty for killing the woman. This is largely interpreted in Jewish law as meaning the life of a fetus is not on the same level as fully formed human life.  In addition, Jewish tradition teaches that our soul arrives as our body is being born – another way to define fully formed human life.

One example of how this difference in the level of life is applied is how the death of a fetus is ritually observed versus the death of a fully formed human.  A person who dies is supposed to have ritual washing (taharah), be guarded leading to the funeral by a person sitting with them and reciting Psalms, a full funeral with a eulogy plus a full mourning period beginning with the first 7 days (shivah).  Those who lose a fetus are not required to do the same set of rituals.  They can opt to do them but only if these observances do not interfere with other mitzvoth required by Jewish law.  The key point is that death rituals are not required for a lost fetus.

Now let’s consider another subject, not abortion but potentially related to abortion.  A passage from Nazir 51a-b states that one rabbinic master observes that a fetus is actually part of a woman’s body, same as her thigh.  The context being discussed is whether a fetus in a dead woman’s body is considered a separate body just because it would eventually leave the womb.  There is not agreement on the status of the fetus here, just showing how as early as the development of the Talmud, there were rabbis who saw the fetus as part of a woman.  The perspective of a fetus being part of a woman’s body arises again in Gittin 23b, in a discussion if a woman who is a slave can advocate for the freedom of her unborn child.  Again the fetus is proclaimed to be like her thigh in the matter of obtaining freedom from slavery.  This is another way of seeing, from a Jewish perspective, that a fetus is not fully formed human life.

Now we come to a specific teaching on abortion.  In the Mishnah, Oholot 7:6 it states that if a woman’s life is in danger during the delivery of a child, the child must be cut up in her womb, for her life takes precedence over the life of the child not yet delivered.  Indeed, even if the child is almost delivered, as long as the greater part has not emerged, the child can be killed in order to save the woman’s life, as the Mishnah states that the life of the mother has precedence over the life of the child.  This specific abortion teaching demonstrates an application of the difference in the level of life between a fetus and a fully formed human.

The disagreement among rabbis over many centuries is not that the mother’s life takes precedence, but does this passage allow abortions for reasons other than saving the mother’s life. One basis for the argument it does not is connected to Sanhedrin 57b, which states that descendants of Noah (i.e. non Jews) can be convicted as murderers for killing a fetus.  Further, rabbis who feel that abortion is like a murder might argue that the reason a child being born can be killed if the mother’s life is in danger is connected to the law din rodef that says anyone can kill a person who is chasing someone in attempt to murder them.

While there are rabbis who have ruled against abortion, it is important to point out that the general approach of how Judaism defines life gives much more flexibility for having an abortion beyond an actual threat to end the mother’s life.  This is not a conclusion about modern progressive rabbis, but rabbis across the Jewish spectrum for centuries.  One example is the opinion of Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, a former chief Rabbi of Israel from the early 20thcentury, who gave permission to a woman to have an abortion when her doctor determined the presence of the fetus would cause her to be permanently deaf.  Clearly, this rabbi was concerned not just about the woman dying, but the quality of her life.

Based on rabbinic texts as well as a large range of rabbis’ opinions across time and various movements, here is a summary of what I would classify as a majority Jewish perspective. First, it must be clear that a fetus IS life, and should not be ended callously.  However, it is not considered life on the same level as a fully formed human such as a 14 year old teenager.  A fetus does not have its soul.  Second, there is text showing the opinion of some Talmud era rabbis that the fetus is considered part of the woman’s body; ergo in today’s context the decisions made about the body are up to the woman.  Abortion, as something that affects a woman’s body, cannot then be strictly prohibited.  Third, and perhaps most important, making the decision on aborting a fetus is not just based on a threat that ends the woman’s life, but about the quality of life that woman can lead.  We understand today this must include psychology as well as physical health. We simply need to care that a woman’s quality of life is given the same consideration as a man’s.

However, the laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, and Missouri are not just based on men’s attempts to control women.  There are many women who vehemently oppose abortion.  Another reality is the attempts of certain Evangelical Christian groups to force their religious views on the rest of America.  It is generally the same religious groups that oppose the existence of same sex marriage.  The larger context, therefore, is for us to protect the right of various religious perspectives to exist in our country, and not allow a particular one to define specific laws that can be proven to detriment many who are affected.  Opposition to these strict anti-abortion laws must include the stand that no religious group has the right to impose their religious beliefs onto the rest of us.  Judaism represents a belief in the respect for life, but a difference in life at different times of development.

If we recognize that fully formed human life requires a different approach than life developing in a woman’s womb, then we must also believe in the obligation not to oppress fellow humans and to give them the help they need to develop their best possible life.  Our obligations to fully developed humans are repeated again and again in the Bible (Hebrew and Christian) so the question we must ask ourselves is this:  by accepting a particular religious perspective what is the greatest impact we can have on improving a person’s life?

 

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