Several years ago, I met with a 19-year-old Jewish woman from Israel and her 42-year-old husband seeking my advice as a rabbi. She married a much older man to escape a very bad family situation. She wanted to divorce her husband and return to her family in Israel in hopes of reconciliation but she was afraid that she would be further rejected if she had a child and could financially support neither herself nor a newborn.
She had already attempted suicide after hearing about her pregnancy and was thinking about trying suicide again. They were there in my office, both the husband and wife, to discuss whether abortion was an option under Jewish law.
Had we been in Alabama or a number of other states, this would have been a discussion about committing a crime. Last May, Alabama’s governor signed a bill that criminalizes nearly all abortions, threatening providers with a felony conviction and up to 99 years in prison. Six states have passed similar legislation.
However, from the Jewish legal understanding, a fetus is a potential life and the mother is an actual life (Mishna Oholot 7:6, Babylonian Talmud Bekhorot 21b). If the fetus is a direct threat to the life of the mother, the fetus has to be aborted. Therefore, actual life always takes priority over potential life. This would include a real, substantial threat to the sanity of the mother as well as more overt physical threats to her wellbeing.
Judaism recognizes psychological as well as physical factors in determining the potential threat that the fetus poses to the mother. However, the danger posed by the fetus (whether physical or psychological) must be probable and substantial to justify abortion. For this reason, it is the Rabbi, in conjunction with the woman and/or husband or family members, that a decision is made. At the same time, because a fetus is a potential life, abortion is forbidden as a means for birth control and under certain circumstances, in cases of abnormalities or deformities.
Because of this young woman’s attempted suicide and threatened second attempt, I determined, after consulting with rabbinic colleagues, that the fetus was a direct threat to this 19-year-old’s life and an abortion would be permitted. She did have an abortion, divorced her husband, made amends with her family and moved back to Israel.
As a committed Jew and a rabbi, Judaism is my guide on how I live and interact with the world. But with the ever-more restrictive measures curbing abortion, these civil state laws come in direct conflict with my religious practices and beliefs and undermines my ability as a Rabbi to counsel my congregants.
Although Roe V. Wade provides a Supreme Court-mandated federal standard, state lawmakers, politicians and lobbyists raising radical challenges to its definition of life are actually criminalizing actions condoned, and in special cases, encouraged by my tradition.
The debate about abortion is about constitutional rights, the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The state, by restricting and even eliminating, safe means for a woman to have an abortion violates the religious liberties of a woman and/or her family when her religion dictates that she is permitted, and in some cases obligated, to have an abortion.
Even more basic is that the state has no standing to define when life begins. These recent state laws violate the free exercise of religion when they determine when life begins and imposes this definition upon me and my community.
It certainly appears that certain sects of Christianity are driving these laws forward (and these views by no means represent the majority of Christians in the United States!), crushing not only the civil rights of women but the religious rights guaranteed clearly by the Constitution for all citizens. This very attempt at tyrannical theocracy was what our Founders wanted to eliminate in our new nation.
One group of people cannot use their beliefs as means to discriminate and oppress Jews, women, people of color and LGBT people. The reason that there is the First Amendment is to stop religious zealots from trying to beat people of other faiths into submission.