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What is the Torah's View on Abortion?

What is the Torah's View on Abortion?

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Question:

What does the Bible say about abortion? Is a child's life worth less than an adult's? Does life begin at birth or conception?

Answer:

Judaism contains a lot more wisdom than what you can read in the Bible. There's a very rich tradition that tells us how to understand the Bible and how to apply it. That tradition has been passed down from teacher to student in an unbroken chain since Moses. Eventually, much of it was written in the Mishnah and the Talmud, along with many of the discussions and later enactments that were based on these traditional teachings.

For example, the Bible tells us "Thou shalt not kill." But what does that mean? What if someone is going about killing others? What if he is trying to kill me?

So our tradition tells us that the Bible is not talking about those cases. If someone is out to kill you or other innocent people, you need to protect those innocent lives, even if it means killing the murderer.

This applies to an abortion, as well. A fetus is a potential life, so we are not allowed to kill a fetus. However, if the fetus is endangering the mother's life and the only way to protect the mother is by taking the life of the fetus, then we must do so.

However, this is all only as long as the fetus is a life-in-potential. Once the baby's head has emerged from the birth canal, s/he has become a full-fledged human being of the same status as the mother. Even though the mother has a family to take care of and has proven herself viable and valuable, we consider this a matter of one life versus another. At that point, we can't give precedent to either life. Life, according to our tradition, is not something to which you can apply relative values.

There is a very large literature on this topic. And as in all areas of complex halachah (Jewish law), every case needs to be individually evaluated by a rabbi -- who when necessary will consult with medical professionals and/or rabbis who are experts in this particular field of law.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Roberta Indianapolis February 8, 2017

Daniel you say that the Torah regards the unborn baby as a full person But the Torah says that if two men are fighting, and one of them injures the wife of the other, such that "her fruit depart" but she is otherwise unharmed, the man who did it is not charged with murder. Instead, he pays a fine to the father of the unborn child. If the woman herself suffers injury, then the man who injured her must also pay her medical expenses, pain and suffering, and so on, as for any other injury. But either way, the death of the unborn child is not murder according to the Bible. Jeremiah's knowing us in the womb does not mean we were fully human at that point. We are not fully human until we can survive outside the womb, without an umbillical cord drawing life from our mother.

The mother's life takes precedence. Imagine yourself being surgically linked to someone so that their survival depends on you for even a week--much less nine months. That person who draws life from you may also be less than fully human, since he has no independent existence. Reply

Mike Siroky Phoenix July 8, 2017
in response to Roberta:

Jewish law agrees that the mother's life takes precedence until the child's head appears. But life is life, not job, career, family size, sex of the child or other reasons for abortion today Reply

Jordan Disko Beaverton February 6, 2017

Re: Potential life vs. Potential Harm (response to Anonymous in Camarillo, CA) I did not mean to imply that when a man opts out it is without guilt or responsibility. Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA, USA via chabadcamarillo.com February 5, 2017

Re: Potential life vs. Potential Harm (response to Jordan Disko of Beaverton) It's not correct to say that "Men always have the choice to opt out (just leave-no medical procedure involved.) "

Men who leave are still obligated to pay child support and have nearly all the same legal responsibilities after birth as mothers do (except breastfeeding, for obvious reasons). (In theory, a court could decide that a man should have custody and must raise the child, even if he doesn't want to, but that's not common; usually, if the father doesn't want to be involved, he just has to pay.)

Men don't experience pregnancy, but once a birth happens, both parents are subject to all the problems you mentioned. Actually, since a woman usually can give up the child for adoption (fathers can object, but rarely do), but fathers often can't (because the mother's consent is needed), a father is probably less likely to be able to avoid any long-term problems resulting from being a parent. (In the short-term, the mother is more likely to have problems that occur before the birth.) Reply

Jordan Disko Beaverton January 29, 2017

Potential life vs. Potential Harm If we can speak in terms of potential life, is it fruitful to speak of the potential harms that the added responsibility of having a child would entail? One of the reasons that a person may have for ending a pregnancy(I am no expert) is to prevent the mother needing to enter an unhealthy or limited educational, vocational direction or even long term unhealthy relationships elsewhere. How does a fetus win out over the parent or other children involved. Men always have the choice to opt out (just leave-no medical procedure involved.) Reply

Daniel Jerusalem April 1, 2016

Hymie That's not the point I was addressing in the previous post - I was just showing that Torah regards baby's life equal to the adults life in the matters of un/intentional murder.

Regarding your new comment, I agree with the most of it, however, it is up to mother, and mother alone to decide. Torah is not supporting her decision to end the life of a fetus, whatever the reason is - especially in cases of rape or emotional troubles. However, we as men cannot judge women, that is their burden, and we can only pray that they will always make wise decision.
Honestly, I don't know how can a Rabbi give suggestion in those cases. It surely cannot be based on anything that is written in the Tanakh. These are special circumstances that don't have clear explanation and guidelines in the Torah - so everyone has to be very careful when making decisions.
I, too, hope that the medicine will soon bring to light advancement that will allow for millions of fetuses to be saved every year.

Shalom! Reply

Hymie Boston March 29, 2016

To Daniel There are instances when a woman tells her rabbi why she needs an abortion and he approves it. It may be her physical health; for example, if she has TB, the pregnancy will kill her--and her health has priority over the baby's life, because her current children need her, her husband needs her, her parents need her--many people in her life need her, and she has no right to give up her life, or even her health, to produce this baby.

She may have been raped. By her father or her brother, even.

Or she may be emotionally so threatened that she has decided to kill herself rather than face whatever comes with this baby.

There may be other reasons that a rabbi will say she really needs to be free of this pregnancy. If she wants it she calls it her baby. If not, she calls it a fetus.

She needs to be treated as a surrogate mother of someone else's baby. Let the medical community learn to transplant the baby to another woman's womb ASAP. A baby deserves to grow in a loving womb. Reply

Daniel Jerusalem March 27, 2016

True Torah Hymie, that's true for accidental miscarriage. But we have to make clear difference between accidental and intentional killing.
Torah says:
"He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death. However, if he did not lie in wait, but God delivered him into his hand, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man acts with premeditation against his neighbor, to kill him by treachery, you shall take him from My altar, that he may die." - Exodus 21:12-14
So, any accidental murder is not capital sin. But intentional murder is.
Killing intentionally a baby from day one is a MURDER. How can we even think to say that baby is not a person from the moment of conceiving?
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, And before you were born I consecrated you;..." Jeremiah 1:5
"The children fought with each other inside her so much that she said, “If it’s going to be like this, why go on living?”" Genesis 25:22
Baby is a person from conception. Reply

Anonymous MD June 7, 2017
in response to Daniel:

If it is not destroying a person to do so at day one conception, then we can destroy all our children at day 1? Whomever is intentionally destroyed at day one is a distinct individual prevented from living, who otherwise may look back on having been that particular undestroyed human embryo as necessity. Reply

Anonymous March 16, 2016

And He breathed into his nostrils the breathe of life and the man became a living soul. Reply

Hymie Boston February 19, 2016

The Torah specifically says that if two men are fighting, and cause a nearby woman to lose her unborn child, the man at fault must pay a fine to the woman's husband. Thus the death of an unborn child is not murder. It is a serious loss, but it is not murder.

I notice that the rabbi used the word "kill" not the word "murder". Reply

Dr. Reitmam MN February 14, 2016

Life is precious. In my opinion a woman has a right to abortion if raped or her life is threatened by the fetus. Otherwise casual abortions are sacrifices to the idol narcissism. Reply

Crystal September 23, 2015

I'd like to see references from the Torah that supports your article. As an active learner I want to make sure what I'm reading has merit. Can you point a verse? Reply

Tzvi Freeman July 16, 2015

Rectifying an abortion There are two steps to repairing any sin. One is to regret and resolve that it will never happen again. At that point, you are forgiven, 100%.

But the sin itself still needs repair, and that is done by doing more good.

There are several foundations that assist women who feel they must abort because they don't have the means to care for a child. Getting involved in such organizations is certainly one way to fix up the past. Reply

Anonymous Jerusalem July 9, 2015

If a woman had an abortion before she knew the halacha about it, and then she did teshuvah and eventually learned about how abortion is murder, what should do to try to rectify this averah? Reply

Isaiah Jacksonville December 18, 2013

Potential life means, potentially able to live ON ITS OWN. Ideally it is born and held happily in its mother's arms.

Until it can breathe on its own it is certainly alive and able to feel pain, but it is a parasite. It feeds off another human being, and that other human being (its mother) may not be able to survive the drain on its own life force. Or the size and weight of the parasite on the host's internal organs may be fatal. There are many ways in which the parasite may damage the host. The adult may already be the mother of ten other children who need her. To allow the parasite to destroy her life or even to render her unable to take care of the other children is heartless and merciless, even though the mother loves the unborn parasite.

As technology advances, more and more unborn babies can be removed alive and sustained technologically until they are able to breathe and take nourishment on their own. There are many childless couples eager to adopt.

But the happy outcome of a living mother and a successful birth is always preferable Reply

Joel Fry Athens December 15, 2013

If a woman takes a day-after pill in an attempt to abort a pregnancy, this is a sin, and it should be considered a punishable crime. This is a cowardly and convenient way of stopping a pregnancy which has already began. Why can't people take responsibility for their actions? Reply

Michael Peterson Greensboro November 27, 2013

I had expected that in Jewish Law life would begin at conception, but it appears that we do not even recognize it as full life until birth. Nevertheless, this is only minor, since it is still illegal to abort a fetus or "potential life." At the end of this essay it says that we cannot apply relative values to human life, but it appears to me that we unintentionally do. What is the difference between an 8 month baby in the womb and a baby that has been out of the womb for only 8 seconds. They have already completed studies on this, and they have unequivocally proved that a baby in the womb does indeed feel pain. How can only "potential life" feel pain? I know that in practice it does not matter, but still it is the fact that we do not label the unborn child a "life." Qualifying life is what "they" did in Germany during the 1930's and 1940's, and we saw how that turned out. Reply

Alan Steinberg New Paltz NY October 15, 2013

I agree with Stephen. An unborn child which cannot yet breathe on its own is in a problematic position.

And I also agree with Rabbi Tzvi that the unborn child, while not yet able to breathe on its own, is more than merely a mass of cells. Even if it is only two or three months along, the mother already loves it and if she loses it, she will grieve. In fact, I wish that Halachah would provide an outlet for her grief instead of discounting it.

We need a ceremony for the unfortunate loss of an unborn child, instead of merely telling the mother to be happy that she herself survived the miscarriage. She is NOT happy. She wanted a baby, she loved her unborn baby, and now it is gone and she does not know whether she will ever be able to have another one.

Even if her life is such that she cannot endure actually HAVING the baby, it is still a loss. Yes, even if she aborts it, she may also grieve for it.

I attended a Jewish "grief" ceremony where many women finally had the chance to express this grief. Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org October 14, 2013

Re: About abortion.. If you are able to save both, then you are obligated to save both. As for scripture while intentional abortion is not mentioned directly in the Bible, a case of accidental abortion is discussed in Exodus 21:22‑23. As can be seen there, while the person is held liable and it is definitely prohibited (as discussed in the article) it is not necessarily the same as "murder" in the conventional sense. Reply

Anonymous Georgia October 13, 2013

About abortion.. Does Scripture say if a baby is killed while in its mother's womb someone is guilty of murder? Today there is a great chance of saving both mother and child, but which of the two is the more innocent blood? Ultimately isn't the decision God's, not ours?

Please help me understand.

Kindly,
TAB Reply

Anonymous January 3, 2013

@abortion That is exactly what we are saying. No one can be sure of the baby's survival up to that point and it is certainly not considered a real person by any stretch of the mind. It is incredibly valueable, but a person's life is much more valueable, It's invalueble. It is tragic that the situation presented itself, but what me must think clearly and choose the most halachic position. In this case the mother's existing life takes precedence over the potential life. Reply

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