Note: This short essay is meant purely as an educational overview. Jewish law approaches each case according to its particular circumstances. In any actual case, it is vital that qualified rabbis and medical professionals be consulted. If you have undergone an abortion, we recommend that you also read this article.
The question of abortion is perhaps one of the most sensitive and charged topics in the political sphere. As is often the case, Judaism’s view is quite nuanced and does not necessarily fit squarely into either side of the debate. We will try to present a basic overview of the Jewish approach to abortion by presenting the main sources on the subject, in both the Hebrew Bible as well as the Oral Torah.
Abortion in the Hebrew Bible
The first reference to abortion is in Genesis, when Noah and his descendants are forbidden to murder: “One who sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of G‑d He made man.”1
The sages of the Talmud point out that the phrase “one who sheds the blood of man through man” is more accurately translated as “one who sheds the blood of man within man.” Based on this Rabbi Ishmael learns that under ordinary circumstances the killing of a fetus is considered a capital offense for all descendants of Noah, i.e., humankind.2
Read in isolation, one could conclude that abortion is akin to murder. But things are not so simple. Here is what we read in Exodus:
Should men quarrel and hit a pregnant woman, and she miscarried but there is no fatality, he shall surely be punished when the woman’s husband makes demands of him, and he shall give [restitution] according to the judges’ [orders].3
Since the Torah obligates only a monetary compensation but no capital punishment, the Torah seemingly views the fetus as property, not as a human life.
Life But Not Life
Under which circumstances would abortion be permitted? For one, if a pregnant woman’s life is endangered unless the pregnancy is terminated, “her life takes precedence over [the fetus’s] life.” The sages of the Mishnah add, “If, however, the majority of [the fetus] emerged, we may not touch it, for we do not push aside a life in place of another life.”5
Why may the unborn baby be sacrificed to save the mother? Maimonides explains that the fetus has the law of a rodef, one who is pursuing another with intent to kill, whose life may be taken in order to save the would-be victim. It is thus permitted to abort the fetus, surgically or through medication, since the fetus is seen as an active threat to the mother’s life.6
But why is it the fetus whose life is sacrificed for the mother, and not the other way around? Apparently, the unborn child, although a living being, does not yet have a status of personhood equal to its mother. Only once its head has begun to leave the birth canal, are the two considered on equal standing.7
To what extent is the fetus considered a danger to the mother? What if the mother is experiencing psychological or emotional suffering? As this is a very sensitive and nuanced area, a qualified rabbi—together with medical experts—must be consulted.
In addition to assessing the danger, the rabbi will take the duration of the pregnancy into consideration. Although abortion is generally forbidden even before the fetus is considered viable (in fact, simply “wasting seed” is in itself considered a serious transgression), depending on the stage of pregnancy there is considerable debate as to the exact nature of the prohibition.
For example, some explain that there is a difference between aborting in the first 72 hours (when it can still be classed as preventing conception), the first 40 days8 (before the limbs and organs form), the first three months, and until seven months (when the fetus is considered viable).
With a Lit Lamp
We know that the fetus is not considered as “alive” as someone who has been born. But neither is it simply a mass of flesh without a soul. Indeed, the sages of the Talmud tell us the following:
A lamp is lit for the unborn child above its head, and with it the child peers and sees from one end of the world to the other. . . . There are no days in which a person experiences more bliss than during the days in the mother’s womb . . . while there, the child is taught the entire Torah . . . but as soon as he emerges, an angel strikes him on the mouth, causing the child to forget the entire Torah . . .10
Although the Talmud is not necessarily referring to the physical fetus, but rather to its soul, this passage lets us know that the fetus is already somewhat linked to its soul.
- Under normal circumstances it is forbidden to take the life of an unborn child, and it may be akin to murder (depending on the stage of pregnancy and birth, see footnote11).
- As long as the unborn remains a fetus, it does not have a status of personhood equal to its mother, and therefore may be sacrificed to save the life of the mother.
- In any case where abortion may be necessary, it is of paramount importance to consult halachic and medical experts as soon as possible.