The Morning After Pill and Judaism

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In the following article, a mainstream Orthodox rabbi maintains that Plan B does not pose much of a halakhic problem. Though most Modern Orthodox rabbis would permit the use of Plan B in situations where the mother's health is in question, halakhic authorities disagree over the permissibility of Plan B under normal circumstances. Reprinted with permission from The New Jersey Jewish Standard.

When the FDA…approved the over-the-counter sale of Plan B, a post-intercourse oral contraceptive, conservative and right-wing Christian groups scored the move, but Jewish groups seem fairly nonplussed by the decision.

Family Planning

The "morning after" pill, which when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex can reduce the chance of pregnancy, has been available by prescription for three years, but now will be available over the counter to anyone over 18. While right-wing groups looked at the move as one that will further loosen the country's morals and could lead to a wider spread of AIDS through unprotected sex, Jewish groups--at least from a halakhic point of view said that the pill itself poses few problems.

plan B"It is not controversial. It's not an abortion," said Rabbi Andrew Warmflash, the rabbi of the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, which is Conservative. "There is no moral issue here. It is a public policy issue."

Though the Conservative movement condones abortion under special circumstances, such as in the case of rape or when the fetus threatens the mother's life, it does not do so for family planning, said Warmflash. And it does condone contraception, even for family planning, though using only methods, such as the birth control pill and IUD, that do not create a barrier between a man and woman--though some, said Warmflash, have pushed to allow the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.

The Reform Movement's Religious Action Center welcomed the FDA's decision to approve the morning after pill. According to a RAC press release:

"All who share our goal of preventing unwanted pregnancies should join us in welcoming the long overdue decision to make this safe and easy way to prevent pregnancy more easily available to women across the country," said the release, written by the RAC's associate director, Mark J. Pelavin.

In October, the RAC joined with other religious organizations--NA'AMAT USA, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church--drafted a letter urging the FDA to approve the over-the-counter pill.

That letter, which urged the FDA to approve the oral contractive for use of women 17 and older, stated, "Access to emergency contraception is critical to the health and well-being of all women…. The Reform Jewish movement has long advocated that women receive 'coverage of all reproductive medical needs.'"

The statement also asserted that studies have shown that emergency contraception does not increase promiscuity in teenagers.

"There should never be any restriction placed on any form of birth control, abortion, etc.," said Rabbi Neal Borovitz of Temple Sholom in River Edge. "I think that the woman's right to choose is something we must strongly guard."

Further, he said, the pill does not even pose any halakhic restrictions because according to his movement's understanding, the embryo is not considered potential life in the first 40 days after conception.

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, of the Orthodox Kehilat Kesher in Englewood, agreed that the pill does not pose much of a halakhic problem "because the pill must be taken within 72 hours. According to the Talmud, the first 40 days, the embryo is called 'mayim be'elma,' simply water."

The Orthodox movement generally prohibits abortion, though, except when the fetus threatens the life of the mother. In that case, said Fox, the mother's life always takes precedence over that of the unborn life. And when a fetus has certain known genetic defects, many Orthodox rabbis would condone abortion. It is almost universally condoned in the case of rape.

As for contraception, most mainstream Orthodox rabbis hold that within marriage, certain forms, such as the birth control pill or the IUD, which do not change the act of sex, are permissible, while condoms, which block sperm from entering a woman's body, are not, said Fox.

"This is more a cultural or social issue," he said. "The question is what does it mean that sex is removed of consequence? But that is the reality we live in. People can have sex without having kids."

But Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel, which typically falls to the right of the Orthodox Union, said the issue is not that simple. Agudath Israel has not taken a position on the Plan B pill.

"Needless to say, we deplore the culture of abortion that has resulted in the routine abortion of considerably advanced fetuses even when there are no truly compelling justifications," Shafran told The Jewish Standard. "And we favor the revocation of Roe [v. Wade], with exceptions in special circumstances. But, as noted, we have not taken a position on 'Plan B,' which is designed to prevent conception or interrupt gestation at a very early stage, and is self-administered. To us, the public policy field here is Roe's carte blanche endorsement of abortion as a woman's 'right.'"

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Jacob Berkman is a staff writer for the Jewish Telgraphic Agency.