Abortion in Jewish Thought

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As we have seen, if a woman’s life is in danger it is permissible—in fact, obligatory—to terminate her pregnancy. But what about cases where the danger is of another sort? For example, a woman can suffer psychological harm by bringing to term a child who is the product of rape or who suffers from a genetic disorder. Is this psychological harm sufficient to warrant an abortion?

Rashi’s belief that the fetus is not considered a human life is the basis for the position that, in certain circumstances, psychological damage is sufficient danger to permit abortion. Eliezer Waldenberg employs this reasoning in allowing abortions for fetuses carrying Tay-Sachs, a terminal genetic disease common to Ashkenazic Jews. Those who rely upon Maimonides’ interpretation, however, do not focus on the non-human status of the fetus. They allow abortion only when the fetus threatens the life of the mother. When the fetus is not life-threatening—even if it threatens the woman in other ways—abortion is not permitted. This was the position taken by the former chief rabbi of Israel, Issar Unterman.

While many liberal authorities do permit abortion even for unwanted pregnancies when there is the potential of psychological damage to the mother, it should be noted that Judaism’s qualified support for abortion is not rooted in the language of “a woman’s right to choose.” A fetus is considered equivalent to a limb; just as Jewish law would prohibit someone from choosing to cut off their own limb, it would prohibit abortion without good reason. Conversely, most authorities would agree that a woman may not choose not to have an abortion if pregnancy or childbirth puts her life in danger.

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