Jews and the Pro-Life movement—must we eat herring?


What a pity that Orthodox Jews have not been active in the Right to Life movement, and have left Christians to speak for us. Yes, we sympathize with them and vote for conservative candidates, and once in a while the Agudah may file an amicus brief. But we have been mainly silent, and as a result, very few people—very few Jews, even—know what the Jewish position actually IS.

In today’s NY Times we have been lumped together with Christians for the umpteenth time, as if there really were one monolithic “Judeo-Christian” view of when life begins. The NY Times thinks that Orthodox Jews share the Catholic view—that life begins at the moment an egg is fertilized by a sperm. The Times says, “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is wrong to destroy embryos in the course of research.” And how should they know that there is any difference between the Christian and Jewish views, if we are silent?

If we had been more active and more vocal, we might have had more influence within the pro-life movement, and our actual views might have been better known to the media. In Torah tradition, the soul enters the body forty days after conception. Almost all poskim permit IVF for the sake of treating infertility (not with donor sperm, though)—and when too many embryos are created to have a reasonable chance of safe birth, almost all permit destroying the “extras” in the Petri dish. By “embryos” we mean tiny eight-celled balls in a laboratory dish, aka blastocysts, smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence.

If an IVF cycle produced five or six such balls, the Catholic Church would require that ALL of them be implanted in the woman’s uterus, even though the chance of six babies surviving would be almost nil (and the mother’s health would also be severely compromised). The Catholics (and some Protestants) would say that if some of those minute balls were discarded in the lab, then the doctor was guilty of murder, just the same as if he had killed a 20-year-old man. Halacha, in contrast, permits the doctor to choose the two or three best embryos and discard the rest. Remember, “embryo” means a ball the size of this dot.

Among the practical applications where this makes a difference, besides infertility, are these two: the morning-after pill, and the controversial issue of embryonic stem-cell research.

According to the Church, if a woman is raped and shows up at a hospital emergency room, and if a doctor in the ER gives her a morning-after pill—which prevents the implantation of a fertilized egg—both the doctor and the woman are guilty of murder. Amazingly, this extreme view has had great influence in American law, such that it is actually very difficult in many states for a woman to obtain these morning-after pills for use as a contraceptive. Ironically, the result is that there are many pregnancies which, not having been prevented right at the beginning, end up going to the third or fourth month—and THEN the woman has an abortion, when her fetus definitely does have a soul and when she really is committing a grave sin according to both Jewish law and Noahide law! (“Noahide law” is what the Torah requires of non-Jews.)

BTW the pro-choice groups have been complicit in letting these restrictive laws stand. One of the reasons the pro-abortion lobby has let the pro-life movement mostly have its way vis-à-vis the morning-after pill is that Planned Parenthood—ostensibly a “non-profit” organization—actually rakes in millions of dollars each year through its abortion mills.

In the case of stem-cell research, halacha would probably permit research in the first couple of weeks after fertilization, when the “embryo” is, as I said, a ball of cells. Certainly in IVF clinics, a great deal of research goes on, to determine which methods of fertilization have the best rates of success. This research has enormously benefited thousands of Orthodox couples struggling with infertility (including Yours Truly).

As it so happens, there are now other methods of producing stem cells for medical research, so the question of embryonic stem cells may soon be moot. But if it should turn out that embryonic stem cells have the greatest potential for therapeutic use, it would not be against the halacha to use them. Again, please be clear: we are not talking about creating a whole fetus, waiting until the third or fourth month, and then cutting the baby up in order to use its liver or kidneys. We are talking about taking a ball of undifferentiated cells in a laboratory and coaxing those cells to grow liver cells or kidney cells WITHOUT becoming a whole baby. We don’t believe that that ball of cells has a soul in it yet.

Many people think that Jews and Christians are on the same page on these issues, but it isn’t so, and it’s our own fault, because we have been such passive and silent allies to the pro-life movement, rarely telling anyone what Judaism actually teaches about when life begins or when the soul enters a fetus.

In truth we have many good reasons to ally ourselves with religious believers in the pro-life movement, because the “pro-choice” movement is so horrendously murderous and immoral. The entire point of the pro-choice movement is to guarantee “sex with no consequences”—in fact, you could put that on a bumper sticker, it sums up the whole pro-choice agenda. Despite our disagreements with conservative Christians about stem-cell research, IVF and the morning-after pill—despite those issues, we appreciate that at least Christians recognize the sanctity of life.

They might be wrong about the sanctity of an eight-celled blastocyst but they are fundamentally right about the larger issue that is tearing American society apart—the wholesale slaughter of millions and millions of babies each year, some well past the point of viability.

We Jews need to speak up about this, about where we agree and where we disagree.

But it isn’t enough for us to pipe up and say, “Well, no, Jewish theology is not the same as Christian theology, we don’t agree with them about this or that detail.” We have to be an active PART of the pro-life movement, we have to be more vocal and involved with it. We can’t just be another bunch of kibitzers from the sidelines, heckling the good Christians and telling them they’re wrong about this, that and the other. We also have to be seen as allies and supporters of the pro-life movement, so that our voices can be heard WITHIN that movement. We have to honor the pro-life movement and thank the foot soldiers who have fought so bravely and so untiringly, in the face of vilification and bile, to keep alive in America the very notion of the sanctity of life.

Oh, while I’m about it, I have to swat away another pesky fly—the absurd notion that if Roe v Wade were overturned, or if Christians had their way, then Jewish women wouldn’t be able to obtain abortions when halachically required to save the woman’s life.

This red herring has been waved by the Reform movement (and a few misguided Orthodox Jews) for so many years that the herring is quite stinky and rancid by now. But it remains a herring.

Without Roe v Wade, the issue of abortion would be sent back to the fifty states, each of which would then vote in its own policies, some a bit more permissive, others a bit more restrictive. The issue never should have been taken away from the people in the first place. All fifty state legislatures, answerable to the will of the people, would permit abortion under certain circumstances, emphatically INCLUDING to save the mother’s life. How do I know? Because over 90% of the American people believe that abortion is justified to save the mother—including at least 75% of pro-life Christians!

So breathe easy, and throw away that herring.

And let the foot soldiers of the pro-life movement have our gratitude—and our considered input.

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One Christian's perspective
7 years 10 months ago

Dear One Christian- your story is very moving, and says much about the self sacrifice of ONE particular set of parents. However, there are many potential parents who do not have the pyschological or emotional resources to do the same.

Comment by Noam

To be honest Noam, on my own strength, I KNOW I would not have the psychological or emotional resources to do what these folks did. This couple did not do this on their own strength. G-d was and is a big part of their lives – before the pregnancy (which BTW, they were told would never happen in their life time), during the pregnancy (which happened 30 days after the doctors pronouncement and when they thought their dreams had been answered), after the pregnancy (when they realized their dreams had been shattered), the time of birth of the child up to and including her death (when their faith grew stronger, their prayers bolder, and their knowledge of G-d passed from mere knowledge to a relationship to being in His presence). All of these phases, G-d used for his glory and good. That is also a prayer of theirs that G-d answered and is answering. G-d took one child from them and gave them many – all abandoned and discarded – living in horrid conditions abroad.

You’re right, this story is about one particular set of parents (and G-d). In looking back through time, I am reminded of many such parents.

I can truly appreciate that Jewish law takes into account the mother’s life and the severe psychological distress she may face ! You see, years ago, I decided not to have children ever and chose to be sterilized because I did not think I could face the trauma of abortion. I grew up in an emotional abusive home and I did not want to perpetuate the hurt that I had experienced. By G-d’s grace, I am a different person today. I have forgiven my parents and I am able to mourn the natural children I chose to not have as a pathway to healing. Out of all this, G-d has placed an 80 year old retarded man into our lives. This child so loved by his mother for 81 years. It is an awesome honor and a joy to be a little part of his life.

I sincerely hope that I would not judge anyone’s pain and suffering in a negative judgmental manner.

7 years 10 months ago

Dear One Christian- your story is very moving, and says much about the self sacrifice of ONE particular set of parents. However, there are many potential parents who do not have the pyschological or emotional resources to do the same. For that reason, Jewish law allows abortion in cases of severe psychological distress of the mother. In fact, it is mandated if it is going to cause severe psychological distress. If you think about it, there are many cases of post-partem depression even when the baby is totally healthy. There is also an incidence of suicide in post partem mothers. Jewish law takes this into account and does not force a mother to have a child if it is going to cause here severe psychological distress. Of course, the definition of severe psychological distress is interpreted differently across the range of orthodoxy.

7 years 10 months ago

Ori Pomerantz:

How often is an abortion medically necessary and travel is dangerous? Given Canada’s politics, I doubt abortions will be made illegal there any time soon. Travel to Canada is not that expensive.

It is to a woman too poor to put up the security deposit on an apartment. And what if she doesn’t have a passport, now necessary for travel to and from Canada? Even expedited processing (for an additional charge) takes almost a month now, where it used to take a week; regular processing takes three months, by which time the abortion would be medically impossible.

The rich have always been able to get an abortion, if necessary/wanted. Roe v. Wade made it more available to the poor, by ensuring that every state legalized abortion.

Charles B. Hall, PhD
7 years 10 months ago

David Friedman is correct in that a few women die each year as a result of having an abortion: Ten out of 848,163, to be precise, in 2003, the most recent year for which data are available on the CDC web site. That is 1.2 per 100,000 abortions. However, he fails to mention that the maternal mortality rate in that same year was 12.1 deaths per 100,000 live births. Thus according to the US government — with an executive branch run by pro-lifers — it was ten times more dangerous for a woman to give birth than to have an abortion.

This is not an argument for abortion. And there is certainly some misclassification of causes of death in both those statistics. (I heard of a more recent study that indicates that the increased risk from pregancy might be only sevenfold greater, not tenfold greater.) But to point out risks from abortion without pointing out that there are significant risks from a full term pregnancy that might well be substantially greater is disingenuous. It makes the public less likely to listen to the pro-life movement in other areas.

I agree that a million abortions a year in the US are appalling! But why have I never heard of anyone from the pro-life side of this argument suggesting that we see what has been done in Europe to achieve the lowest abortion rates in the world? Preaching to True Believers will change nothing.

Lawrence M. Reisman
7 years 10 months ago

Mrs. Katz states that “All fifty state legislatures, answerable to the will of the people, would permit abortion under certain circumstances, emphatically INCLUDING to save the mother’s life.”

I remember the abortion debates in the 1960s. The ideological forefathers of today’s pro-life movement were unalterably opposed to any liberalization of abortion laws beyond permitting abortions to save a woman’s life. And medical and hospital tissue committees came down hard on proposed abortions. I still remember when Colorado amended its law to permit abortion in the case of rape, a DA stating that unless he had enough evidence of rape to get a grand jury indictment against someone, he was going against the woman and her doctor. I remember the liberalization debate in the New York legislature, when the pro-life forces, when faced with modest attempts to liberalize New York law, forced the body to consider a repeal of all abortion laws relating to the first two trimesters, in the hope that it would be too radical to pass. When the NY legislature voted to repeal the liberalization law, it reinstated the old draconian provisions. Only a veto by Governor Rockefeller kept liberalization in place. So don’t be so sure that abortions would be available under any but the most extreme conditions.

Oh, while I’m about it, I would argue that if Roe v Wade were overturned, or if Christians had their way, then Jewish women wouldn’t be able to obtain abortions when halachically required to save the woman’s life or health. I remember what it took to get an abortion in the 1960s. My mother had one. In Puerto Rico, because it wasn’t possible to get one in New York.

It would be nice if the abortion debate had some midground. However, we are faced with two choices, totally legal abortions or no abortions at all (except to save the woman’s life, and only then when the case is overwhelmingly obvious). That is how the pro-life people have framed this debate, and that’s where it is. And given those two choices, I vote reluctantly for totally legal abortions.