Jewish Law On Abortion


In support of a proposed federal bill, the Women’s Health Protection Act, Beatrice Kahn correctly states, “Under Jewish Law, … the emotional and physical health of the mother are paramount and cannot be sacrificed for the fetus” (“Faith And Women’s Access To Abortion,” Opinion, June 29).

Although her essay was not intended to delve into the details of Jewish Law, readers of The Jewish Week should be aware that Jewish law would not support the contention of abortion rights activists that the fetus is just another part of a woman’s body and may be aborted at will.

The Talmud regards a fetus for up to 40 days after conception as “maya de-alma” (mere water). Beyond 40 days, however, it is regarded as a potential life and should be treated accordingly. The only source we have for deciding when an abortion is appropriate is a Mishnah in Tractate Ohalot (7:6) that deals with a woman in labor whose life is in danger due to her fetus. The Mishnah rules that as long as the majority of the body [or the head] has not been delivered, the fetus may be dismembered and removed limb by limb from the womb. Maimonides, a most highly-regarded medieval authority on Jewish law, explains that the fetus is killed because it is considered a “rodef” (a killer chasing a person).

The implication is clear: In situations where the fetus is not a “rodef,” an abortion would not be permitted. Although there is plenty of room for a rabbinic authority to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a particular fetus is placing a woman’s life in danger, Jewish law certainly does not consider a fetus as just another limb in a woman’s body and does value the rights of the fetus.

Readers interested in delving into this subject further should refer to the excellent purview of it, “Jewish Views on Abortion,” by former Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth Immanuel Jakobovits, reprinted in “Jewish Bioethics,” edited by Fred Rosner and J. David Bleich (Sanhedrin Press).