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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.
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Discussion (53)
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
Isaiah
Jacksonville
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?
Joel Fry
Athens
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.
Michael Peterson
Greensboro
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.
Alan Steinberg
New Paltz NY
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.
Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org
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
Anonymous
Georgia
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.
Anonymous
October 10, 2012
abortion
So, ur God thinks a baby is human only after its born? Sure is different from the God i read about in the bible!
Chell
santa clarira, ca
November 4, 2011
Doug, your view is frightening.
So, do you condone killing abortion doctors because you think that if you kill a fetus you must die? What is your opinion on people who do kill doctors who perform abortions?
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
November 1, 2011
I think that the Rabbis need to come together
And write specifics on what the Torah says. Until the rabbis can AGREE on what the Torah says, abortion can not be called "murder" in any instance. Even after they agree on some policy, the term "murder" is a political one and must be left to law officials.
Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell
Riverside, CA, USA
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