Abortion Rights And Wrong

By Avi Shafran

Published May 07, 2004, issue of May 07, 2004.
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Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators flocked to Washington, D.C. on April 25 for a rally in support of legal abortion. Thousands of the participants attended as members of an assortment of Jewish organizations. And many of those Jewish participants nurtured a deep conviction that their stance expressed a deeply Jewish value.

They were wrong.

To be sure, reasonable people can debate whether secular law should reflect religious views on abortion.

But the assertion that maintaining an essentially unfettered right to feticide, the upshot of Roe v. Wade, is somehow a Jewish imperative — or, for that matter, in any way in consonance with Jewish tradition — wildly distorts the truth.

The abortion issue is not only about rights but about right, as in “right and wrong.” And, while Judaism has little to say about rights — it speaks rather about duties and obligations — it has much to say about right.

Take the procedure whose outlawing was a major stimulus for the recent rally. Despite the intense and concerted efforts of some to misrepresent the law prohibiting “partial birth abortion,” its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act “that the person knows will kill” a fetus whose “entire… head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother.”

There is no possible way to square a “right” to perform such an act, which is little if anything short of infanticide, with Jewish law or Jewish tradition’s reverence for even a single life.

As to the larger issue of abortion as it is more commonly performed, while Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child, that is so only when there is no way to preserve both lives.

Admittedly — although the matter is hardly free of controversy — there are respected rabbinic opinions that permit abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother’s health. But those narrow exceptions in no way translate into some unlimited mother’s “right” to make whatever “choice” she may see fit about the life of the child she carries.

And yet a special “Roe Reaches 30” supplement to Hadassah Magazine’s Summer 2003 issue quotes unnamed “authorities” to maintain that Jewish law “implicitly assumes that a woman has the right to make her own reproductive choices.” The supplement’s “Jewish Law” section goes on to claim that “restricting access to reproductive services… undermines basic tenets of Judaism.”

Those assertions in no way reflect accepted, or even seriously entertained, rabbinic opinion.

If anything undermines basic tenets of Judaism, it is the notion that the Torah allows unfettered “access to reproductive services” — namely, Roe v. Wade-style abortion-on-demand.

Judaism values life, and potential life as well. Nothing could be more profoundly un-Jewish than maintaining that a woman has the “right” to make “personal choices” at the expense of a developing life.

Where such misconceived priorities can all too easily lead is evident in India.

That country’s census commissioner, J. K. Banthia, recently estimated that several million female fetuses have been aborted in his country over the past two decades because ultrasound scans showed they were female and Indian parents prefer boys. What those parents exercised was choice.

Is being unwilling to shoulder the burden of a child —the reason for many if not most abortions in America today — somehow more morally honorable, more Jewishly honorable, than preferring a son to a daughter?

The image of Jews en masse embracing social, cultural or political movements as “Jewish” is nothing new. Fairly recent times saw a considerable number of Jewish men and women proudly bearing the banner of socialism, and even communism, as the very embodiments of the Jewish prophets’ words.

Others today tout democracy or capitalism as quintessential expressions of Torah-truth. And many were the isms that came earlier. It is as old a story as the adoration of the golden calf, to which Jewish commentaries — pace Cecil B. De Mille — ascribe sublime and idealistic motives no less.

Imagining that one’s personal convictions reflect Judaism is a sign of a Jewish soul that cherishes its religious heritage. But imaginings are not always borne out by facts, and can even be sorely misguided mistakings of wrong for right. The abortion issue is a case in point.

There is, in fact, a pertinent choice here. It comes not, though, from the book of liberalism but rather from the book of Deuteronomy.

“I have placed before you,” the Creator informs us through Moses, “life and death, the blessing and the curse.”

“Choose life,” the verse continues, “so that you and your seed will live.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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