What Does Judaism Say About Reproductive Rights?

By Rabbi Eli Freedman

In the spirit of lifting up women’s voices, I want to begin with the words of Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel in Boston. She writes, “Women have been wronged.Children have been wronged as well. No one is left untouched in the destructive legislation concerning abortions—especially, of course, women’s bodies, which have been viewed as the property of government.” Rabbi Zecher then goes on to quote this week’s portion, Behar, with the words: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I the Eternal am your God.”

We consider the specific command “not to wrong another” in light of legislation in Alabama, Missouri, Ohio, Georgia, and elsewhere that has robbed women and those who love them of their own agency and, preemptively, in some states, indicted them as potential murderers. Although these heinous behaviors of lawmakers reflect a sinister strategy to get to the Supreme Court, they have trampled human dignity and decency on the way.

There are many ways to approach these recent laws from a Jewish lens. I want to first address a deeply disturbing part of the recent legislation passed in Alabama. HB314 begins with these words: “It is estimated that 6,000,000 Jewish people were murdered in German concentration camps during World War II; 3,000,000 people were executed by Joseph Stalin’s regime in Soviet gulags; [etc.]… All of these are widely acknowledged to have been crimes against humanity. By comparison, more than 50 million babies have been aborted in the United States since the Roe decision in 1973, more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.”

I cannot begin to tell you how highly offensive this statement is to the memory of those who perished in the Shoah; and the hurt that this type of language has caused to their families and to Holocaust survivors – not to mention anyone affected by the other atrocities mentioned. Let us also be absolutely clear that this statement is also historically inaccurate. In fact, as Rabbi Hara Person, CEO of the Central of Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), writes, “The ‘forced-birth’ mentality to eliminate abortion access is far closer to the Nazi philosophy of dehumanization and oppression.” She points out that near-total bans on abortion, “push us closer to the kind of totalitarian regime that enabled the Holocaust.”

As offensive as this language comparing abortions to the Holocaust is, especially considering a recent Pew study which found that 83% of American Jews are in favor of a woman’s right to choose. What is even scarier is the thought that we could soon live in a country where abortion is illegal. It is noteworthy that a group of white Christian men from Alabama would misappropriate a tragedy that befell the Jewish people, as they are misappropriating the very bodies of women in their state. I use the descriptor Christian on purpose here, as first, all of the lawmakers that passed this legislation in Alabama are Christian, and also to draw a distinction between religious views on abortion.

In her article, “There is more than one religious view on abortion – here’s what Jewish texts say,” Rachel Mikva, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the Chicago Theological Seminary, reminds us that when anti-abortion legislators claim religion as their moral justification, they are generally speaking of just one religion. She writes: “Called ‘fetal heartbeat’ bills, they generally refer to the fetus as an ‘unborn human individual.’ It is a strategic choice, trying to establish fetal personhood, but it also reveals assumptions about human life beginning at conception that are based on particular Christian teachings.”

Judaism on the other hand has a very nuanced view in which our sages have grappled with this complex issue over hundreds of years. The two main points that Professor Mikva brings up are: 1) Judaism believes human life begins at birth – technically once the head has emerged. This is documented in the Bible as well as extensively in rabbinic literature and 2) Judaism clearly allows for abortion when the mother’s life is at risk (how you define risk varies), using the legal terminology of the rodeph – a pursuer. In halakha, Jewish legal code, one is allowed to use lethal force when protecting someone from a pursuer. Our sages viewed the fetus in this case as rodeph, and a pregnancy could therefore be terminated for the sake of the mother.

However, I do not want to spend too much time debating when life begins. To quote Washington State Congressional Representative, Dr. Kim Schrier, a proud Reform Jew and the only female doctor in Congress, “This is a philosophical and religious decision and no one else’s religion belongs in the exam room.”

As activist Erin Costello writes: “All of these arguments around ‘life’ distract from the actual issue, which is that no human should be required to share their organs with another human. No human should be required to sacrifice their life for another human. The intention or reason behind the abortion is irrelevant in the context of the right to bodily autonomy. There are people who will die if they don’t receive a kidney transplant. Yet the government cannot force you to donate your organs or blood to another person. This right to bodily autonomy even extends past death. If you don’t legally agree to be an organ donor while still alive, they will bury your healthy organs in the ground instead of use

them to save another human. So why does this concept suddenly change when a woman becomes pregnant? Why must a women sacrifice her blood and organs for the fetus when post-birth humans are not entitled to even a dead person’s body parts?”

When the government makes abortion illegal, it is taking legal ownership over pregnant women’s bodies and denying them the right to make decisions about their own organs. Women cannot be fully free and autonomous if childbirth becomes required by law. Everyone is allowed to have their own feelings about abortion, but they are not allowed to sacrifice other people’s bodies because of their feelings.

This week, I joined 8 of our congregants at The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s Consultation on Conscience. We had small group sessions, a chance to meet with our elected representatives, and we heard from some amazing speakers, including Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. But the best speaker by far was the little know Dr. Kim Schrier, whom I mentioned earlier. 

Representative Schrier got involved in politics after the 2016 election. Seeing her country change for the worse, she lobbied her 7 term Republican Congressional representative around the issues of healthcare and the defunding of Planned Parenthood. She argued that if conservatives don’t want abortions (and let’s be clear here – nobody wants abortions), then defunding Planned Parenthood is total hypocrisy as it statistically has been shown to create more unwanted pregnancies. Once again, let’s be absolutely clear here, in the words of Dr. Schrier, “Do not be fooled – this is not about the well being of children – this is about wanting to control women and women’s bodies.”

After her representative voted to defund Planned Parenthood, she decided to run for office – spurred on by a friend who pulled the Jewish card on her, quoting the book of Esther “maybe you were put in this place for a time such as now.”

In her speech, which you can all watch online at rac.org/livestream, Representative Schrier reminds us as a doctor that heart cells can beat in a petri dish and a heartbeat by no means constitutes life from a medical perspective. She told us abortion is safe, legal, and common – 1 out of 4 women have one. And to once again quote Rep. Schrier, “What I want to tell all of my colleagues across the aisle, is probably some of your wives have had an abortion as well but they’re too afraid to tell you because you’re such a jerk about it!”

When we heard Rep. Schrier speak on Tuesday, she was wearing all white in honor of the 100th anniversary of the House of Representatives passing the 19th amendment. Women have had the vote for almost 100 years and it has been almost 50 years since Roe V. Wade. And still we are fighting for women’s right to make health care choices about her own body. 

A group recently met at RS to begin strategizing about our collective Jewish response to this assault on reproductive rights. Please keep a lookout in the bulletin, our website, and social media, for upcoming ways to engage with us in the righteous work.

In our Torah, we read the words: “And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” (Lev. 25:10) You may recognize those words; they are engraved in the Liberty Bell, the symbol of our nation’s freedom, found just over a mile from Rodeph Shalom. This is an aspirational message that has yet to be reached for many in our country. The Liberty Bell, cracked and broken, is a reminder for us all, that there is a broken, cracked liberty in our country when all are not free to make choices about their reproductive health. May we soon live in a time when we can truly proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants.