Terminating a Pregnancy

The author adapts biblical texts to create a ritual that expresses the anguish of terminating a pregnancy

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The Talmud in Sanhedrin 72b says that a fetus may be considered a rodef, one who "pursues" another with intent to kill. Jewish law allows a rodef to be killed to preempt his act of murder. Although Maimonides clarifies that the fetus is a rodef only when the woman is having difficulty giving birth, the author extends this concept to situations where the fetus is threatening either the physical or the psychological/spiritual health of a pregnant woman. This article suggests ritual for the day of the termination, and a second article describes follow-up ritual during the month following the termination. Reprinted by permission of the author from Taking Up the Timbrel: The Challenge of Creating Ritual for Jewish Women Today (SCM Press).

Pregnancy can be ended for many reasons--all of them bring pain and distress to the people involved and no decision to end a pregnancy is ever taken lightly. This ritual is designed to cover different stages of the process: a meditation and prayer once the decision is taken; again after the termination; and finally a ritual to take the participants back into life. The liturgy is based on the understanding of the fetus as being a rodef--a pursuer of the life of the mother. Using the words of our matriarchs, the stories of King David, and the poetry of the psalms, it aims to return the mother back into the cycle of life through the cycle of the new moon.

Meditation to Be Read Silently After the Decision to Terminate

When David fled from his pursuer, he knew that there was but a step between himself and death. He asked, "What have I done? What is my iniquity that I am now forced to make this choice?" And he was reassured: there was no sin that had brought about his present position. The next day was the new moon, when there was to be a feast for everyone in the household.

Jonathan told David, "You shall be missed because your seat shall be empty." When we flee from a pursuer, we too know that there is but a step between ourselves and death. We ask ourselves, "What have I done? What was my sin that now I must travel this road?" As Jonathan reassured David, so should we be reassured. David chose to go. Having weighed up the prospects and having considered them with his friend, he made the decision for his life. Jonathan told David to go in peace, and the Lord would be with him. For all our lives there will be someone who is missed, whose seat is vacant at family meals.

Yet now we say, "Go in peace, and the Lord be with you."

A Prayer to Be Said by the Parent of the Child Before the Termination

To judge between life and death is to take the place of God. Yet I must make this judgment now, for a pursuer comes after me and I must act.

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Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild is a rabbi at Wimbledon & District Synagogue in London, England.