In January the New York state legislature passed its most permissive abortion law yet. The bill expands access to late term abortions and allows medical staff other than doctors to perform abortions. Its supporters see the bill as a legal bulwark against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case which established a woman’s right to an abortion.
83% of Jews say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Yet Orthodox groups pounced on the bill, comparing it to permission to commit infanticide and condemning its expansion of late-term abortion access. Christian “pro-life” groups like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church put out similar statements.
Orthodox Jews read a certain verse from the first book of the Bible — “Whoever sheds man’s blood in man, his blood shall be shed” — as a condemnation of abortion.
They agree with one of the “pro-life” movement’s deeply held convictions: That women being allowed to have abortions for non-medical reasons — “abortion on demand,” in the phrasing of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association — should be forbidden.
But Orthodox Jews disagree with the “pro-life” movement on two crucial things: They don’t think fetuses should be considered people, and balk at efforts to enact laws that make abortions difficult or nearly impossible to get.
Orthodox Jews “feel that abortion is not just permissible, but in some cases necessary,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest Orthodox rabbinical association. “And that does not jive with the understanding of the “pro-life” movement.”
Abortion and Jewish law
Orthodox Jews make up ten percent of American Jews, according to the Pew Research Center, while the Reform and Conservative movements account for 35% and 18% of American Jews, respectively.
Orthodox Jews have found common cause with Christian groups on Israel and religious education, but on abortion, significant differences remain.
Like “pro-life” groups, more traditional Orthodox Jews decry “the treatment of abortion as a ‘woman’s right’ rather than as a complex and serious ethical issue,” according to Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, the leading ultra-Orthodox umbrella group.
“The last 200 years there has been a pretty much universal position [among Orthodox rabbis] that abortion, unless the mother’s life is at risk, is completely forbidden,” said Rabbi Yair Hoffman, a Hasidic rabbi who writes frequently on how to apply halachic rulings to modern life.
That lone caveat — when the mother’s life is at risk — is rooted in halacha, or Jewish law, which favors the life of the mother over the life of the unborn child, Hoffman said.
But Orthodox Jews aren’t exactly “pro-life” either: Orthodox rabbis agree that each abortion is its own unique case that should be done discretely, and that the procedure cannot be subject to blanket laws that serve to limit overall access to abortions.
That position is what keeps most Orthodox Jews from allying themselves wholesale with the “pro-life” movement, Shafran wrote in an e-mail.
Also, he said, ascribing personhood to the fetus, as the “pro-life” movement does, runs counter to Jewish law. Fetuses in the womb must be considered as not quite people, he wrote — that is how Jewish law is able to tilt the balance towards the health of the mother when considering abortions for life-threatening pregnancies.
“Orthodox Jews — all Jews — should favor abortion laws aimed at making abortions as rare as reasonably possible, but not laws that give fetuses the status of babies,” Shafran wrote. “Erasing all nuance from a complex issue like abortion is not Jewishly tenable.”
Walking a thin political line
In its political lobbying, Agudath Israel has to walk a fine line: On the one hand, it supports what it has called legislation that restricts non-medically necessary abortions. But it also wants to preserve religious freedom, and so opposes legislation that makes abortion illegal in cases where it would otherwise be permitted by Jewish law — i.e., when the mother is endangered.
The Rabbinical Council of America feels similarly, according to Dratch. He said that Orthodox Jews by and large oppose efforts by the “pro-life” movement to enact laws that routinely lead to the closures of abortion clinics, because that endangers the lives of women who they believe have adequate reason to require an abortion.
“Our position would be that [in cases] where abortions would be required we would not want it to be difficult to get an abortion,” he said.
More diversity than meets the eye
These organizations don’t represent the entire spectrum of Orthodox belief on abortion, said Rachel Kranson, a professor of American Jewish history at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Movements are never as uniform as an official statement makes them seem, and I think that’s especially so in Orthodoxy,” said Kranson, who is writing a book about American Jews and reproductive rights advocacy.
The Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance lambasted Agudath Israel, the Rabbinical Council of America and others for their reactions to New York’s abortion bill in January. Their statement attacked the groups’ opposition to wide abortion access granted by the bill.
“These statement positions, written by male led rabbinic governing bodies, are replete with inflammatory and divisive language which is lacking in any nuance,” the Alliance’s statement read.
Abortions are also a fact of life for many Orthodox women — one that can come with tremendous secrecy and stigma. The stories of Orthodox women who had abortions shared with the Forward — some of them for medical reasons, some not — attest that even though abortion can be considered permissible in some cases, it is still a taboo subject for the Orthodox world.
But the Orthodox are not the only people for which the “pro-life” versus “pro-choice” divide do not fit, Menken said.
“These absolutist positions — I’m ‘pro-life,’ I’m ‘pro-choice’ — neither one does it justice,” said Rabbi Yaakov Menken, of the Coalition for Jewish Values, a conservative Orthodox group. “The Jewish community for sure can’t comfortably fit in either extremist box, because we’re not.”