The Jewish Report Editorial

A woman’s right to choose

  • JNF - Tu B'shvat
Last week the United States House of Representatives passed a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy because it is assumed that is the point when a foetus begins to feel pain.
by VANESSA VALKIN | May 20, 2015

Abortion has been a very divisive issue in US politics. The bill will most likely be vetoed by the US Senate (bills need be voted in by both the House and the Senate to become law) or at last resort, by the White House.

That the bill got this far, is symbolic of the growing influence of a religious Christian outlook on abortion - that life begins at the moment of conception, and in certain US states, abortion is already banned.

Those opposing the 20-week plus, or late-term abortion ban, say that US lawmakers have no right to exercise power in the private sphere of personal medical decisions of a woman and her doctor. 

About 99 per cent of abortions occur before 20 weeks, because of rape, teenage pregnancy or financial constraints.

When they are contemplated later in pregnancy, it is often in very complex circumstances such as foetal defects appearing on the 17-week scan, evidence of Down syndrome from an amniocentesis, or if the health of the mother is in jeopardy - the kind of situation where a woman and her doctor should, without fear or prejudice, be able to consider every option available.

The proposed bill makes no exceptions for foetal anomalies - a major reason women would need a procedure at a later stage and would make doctors very wary to help, because any non-compliance could result in criminal charges.

A colleague of mine in Canada had to terminate a pregnancy due to questionable brain measurements found on a scan of a 22-week-old foetus. After deciding with her doctors that it was not worth the risk of continuing the pregnancy to term with such strong evidence of an abnormal foetus, she was told to get it done urgently to avoid going before a panel of strangers to decide her fate.

The panel, she was told, by Canadian law intervened at 24 weeks and could include a pro-life Catholic or Muslim who would probably not agree with her decision to terminate. If the panel ruled against her, she would have had to go to the US, one of very few countries to still allow elective abortions after five months of pregnancy. This option would go away if this bill is passed into law.

In Jewish law, unlike Christianity, even the most stringent interpretations of halacha do not view the foetus as a soul or a person until birth and rabbis have rarely compared abortion to murder.

The rabbis point to a passage of Exodus (21:22) as evidence that the foetus is not yet considered a human being. Two men are fighting and one accidentally bumps into a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry. As punishment, the man must pay the woman’s husband damages comparable to those incurred for injuring a limb or other body part, but he is not punished for the murder of another human being.

That being said, the halachic point of view is that the foetus will become a full-fledged human being and there must be a very compelling reason to allow for an abortion. It is only really permitted if there is a direct threat to the life of the mother.

Because Jewish law never deems some lives more important than others, most rabbis considered qualified to decide these matters, forbid abortion in cases where deformities are found in the foetus.

As a person who has seen the very tough realities of life for brain damaged children and their families, it seems almost incomprehensible to me that a woman who has been told that her baby has a good chance of being born with defects, would not be allowed to abort under strict halacha.

In fact, one of the most highly regarded rabbis of the last century on this subject, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, ruled that an amniocentesis, an increasingly vital procedure in a world where chances of Down syndrome are higher with mothers giving birth later in their life cycles, is forbidden, if it may lead to the parents requesting an abortion.

Thankfully this halachic stringency has not filtered into modern Israeli law making. Despite these rather extreme views, Israel, a nation with a forceful religious lobby and a conservative prime minister, still has one of the most liberal policies on abortion.

Israel approved a healthcare budget just last year that allows women free abortions if they are between the ages of 20 and 33. Let us hope that the inclusion of two parties dedicated to the rights and welfare of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population in the latest election will not lead to any repealing of these policies. 

Here in South Africa, where our healthcare system leaves a lot to be desired, and the incidence of teenage pregnancy and rape is frighteningly high, women at least have sound, liberal reproductive rights with provisions for abortion on demand in most cases - a marked contrast to most countries where abortions are considered criminal unless a woman’s health is in danger.

If we start with the premise that there is no stronger love than that of a woman for her child (born or unborn), and that if she decides to abort, she must have very valid reasons, should we not place the responsibility to make that decision in the hands of the mother?


1 Comment

  1. 1 David 20 May
    This is a decision that men should be excluded from.
    I can, of course understand that men would have the interest and emotive reason to be involved in the debate, but men can never justify the right to pass judgement and make the law or final decision, 
    Particularly men of the cloth, who will always believe and justify their claim to the right to make the decision based on the "writings "of  "THE BOOK"  whichever faith their "BOOK" belongs to.


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