When comedian Natasha Leggero, a recent convert to Judaism, sat down for an interview with late night talk show host Conan O’Brien last year and enthusiastically declared that one of the perks of being a Jew is that “abortion is cool,” the audience groaned and O’Brien shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“You could get an abortion on every Jewish holiday and it would be OK,” said the Catholic-born Leggero.
Disagreeing with her claim and questioning whether she took her conversion classes seriously, O’Brien quipped, “I was just given a signal. The Jews don’t want you any more.”
But which one of them is right? Is abortion permitted in Judaism? As is the case with many Jewish questions, they’re both right – and they’re both wrong.
Hear it from the Halachah
Rabbi Yael Splansky, spiritual leader at Holy Blossom Temple, a Reform congregation in Toronto, explained that from a halachic standpoint, abortions are not forbidden, as a fetus is not treated as a living being.
“Therefore, abortion is not murder,” she said.
Rabbi Splansky said this concept is written about in Exodus, which says, “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined… But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
“Here, the penalty for aborting the fetus is monetary compensation. Causing the death of the woman, however, is murder,” Rabbi Splansky explained, concluding that because the fetus is not a person, it does not have the same rights as the mother.
‘What separates the Reform movement from other denominations is that it proactively advocates for a woman’s right to choose’
“The Mishnah states that when the greater part of the fetus is already born, it must not be touched, because then it is considered a human being and one life must not be taken to save another. Rashi clarifies that “the greater part of the fetus” refers to the head. If the head is already born, the fetus is treated as a baby, a human life, and cannot be harmed, even for the sake of saving the life of the mother.”
Rabbi Splansky said an 18th-century halachic authority in Germany ruled that abortion is permissible “not only… to save the mother’s life, but also to save her from the great (psychological) pain the pregnancy causes her.”
In the Talmud, one authority refers to a fetus that is younger than 40 days as “mere fluid.”
Rabbi Splansky said that when it comes to interpreting Halachah on the subject of abortion, the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements “are more consistent in our approach to the matter than we are different. All human life is sacred and murder is absolutely prohibited. The potential for human life must also be treated with extra care and attention.”
What separates the Reform movement from other denominations is that it proactively advocates for a woman’s right to choose.
‘within the halachic conversation, there are rabbis with widely disparate views on what constitutes the health of the mother’
“Our religious action centre in Washington, D.C., is the political activist and social justice wing of the Reform movement. For decades, it has been working to protect and uphold the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision of Roe v. Wade,” Rabbi Splansky said.
Consulting with congregants: to carry, or abort?
Rabbi Jarrod Grover, spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah Congregation, a Conservative shul in Toronto, said that rabbis often have differing views on the subject, whether they are part of the same movement or not.
“And I’m not just talking about Reform versus Conservative versus Orthodox. Within the halachic conversation, there are rabbis with widely disparate views on what constitutes the health of the mother. Everyone understands that abortion for the purpose of birth control is not allowed. Everyone understands that in a life-threatening situation, it is allowed. But it’s those cases in between,” Rabbi Grover said.
“We don’t allow abortion for frivolous reasons… A woman saying I can’t afford to care for this child does not have the right.”
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, spiritual leader of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation, an Orthodox shul, said that while the Jewish faith does permit abortion in cases where a mother’s life is threatened, “Judaism views the fetus as a life and therefore one is guilty of taking a life if they commit an abortion, but it is nuanced in that it doesn’t have the same value of human life as a person who is already out of the uterus.”
‘Western society dictates that it’s solely up to a woman to decide. Judaism, from a religious standpoint, doesn’t view it that way. While it’s true that it is a woman’s body, a fetus is not part of a woman’s body’
Rabbi Korobkin recalled being approached by a married couple who’d had all the children they planned to have, but became pregnant accidentally:
“The prospect of having another baby in the house was an overwhelming prospect for both parents and that’s why they sought my counsel. I suspect that they both already knew what I would tell them, and perhaps they just need that chizuk, or reinforcement from an authority figure, to do the right thing. In that case, I strongly urged the parents to go through with the pregnancy and offered them my blessings and words of encouragement. Fortunately, they listened.”
Rabbi Korobkin explained that although Western society dictates that it is solely up to a woman to decide, “Judaism, from a religious standpoint, doesn’t view it that way. While it is true that it is a woman’s body, a fetus is not part of a woman’s body. The fetus is a separate life that is growing inside a woman’s body.
“For me, as a religious leader, it is problematic that the Jewish community seems to have lost its sense of religious voice on moral issues because we so much want to conform to the values of secular society,” he said.
Rabbi Splansky also has experience providing counsel to women who wanted to be guided by Jewish law when it came to making a decision about whether to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
“The circumstances, of course, are too private to share here. I will say that it doesn’t always go the same direction. Some women who have come for my pastoral care chose to abort and some chose to carry. I believe each woman felt she made the right choice for her at the time, but the story stays with each woman throughout her lifetime. No one I’ve known makes this decision flippantly,” she said.
Rabbi Grover said he has never been consulted about the issue, but predicted that in most cases, he would encourage a woman to carry the baby to term and should she decide she is unable to care for the child, give it up for adoption instead.
But that is assuming that the life of the mother isn’t at stake, and making that determination is often a challenge.
Interpreting ‘life of the mother at stake’
Rabbi Grover said that when it comes to the contemporary and practical application of Jewish law, it can be difficult to draw the line at what constitutes the life of the mother being at stake.
“There are some examples that are clear, but actually, with the medical care and technology that is available today, it’s actually rare that a pregnancy happens where the life of the mother is certainly at risk. The cases that are more complicated are interpretations of what ‘the life of the mother’ means. For instance, what about her psychological health? What if it is not her life, but there was a case once of a woman who was told that if she would give birth, she would go deaf, is that enough?” he asked.
‘in cases of rape and incest, one is likelier to find a rabbi willing to discuss the psychological trauma as a basis for permitting an abortion’
Rabbi Korobkin agreed that there are many factors to consider.
“What if the mother’s life is not in danger, but her health would be severely compromised? For example, she could develop a debilitating disease. She could become disabled as a result of going full term and having the baby. Depending on the circumstance, we would sanction abortion in those cases, but those cases are much less clear cut and therefore have to be approached on an individual basis,” Rabbi Korobkin said.
He added that in cases of rape and incest, one is likelier to find a rabbi willing to discuss the psychological trauma as a basis for permitting an abortion, but even then, the situation would have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
Permitting abortions for babies with diseases
Rabbi Grover said there is also precedence for permitting abortions for women carrying fetuses that have significant developmental issues.
“Let’s say the baby is found to have a disease. One of the famous cases about abortion is with a baby that is discovered to have Tay-Sachs disease. There is precedent for permitting an abortion (in this case), since… the psychological pain that would be inflicted on the mother would just be unimaginable,” he said.
Although there are no statistics that show how many Canadian Jews have chosen to terminate a pregnancy, according to the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, the rate for Canadians as a whole held steady between 2012 and 2015 at around 100,000 reported abortions per year.
Safe spaces to talk about abortion?
“In my world, people aren’t talking about it, so that can lead me to two conclusions: either we’re not providing safe spaces for people to talk about this, or it’s not affecting that many people,” Rabbi Grover said.
Rabbi Korobkin said he didn’t know of any groups in Canada that deal specifically with Jewish women who are struggling with the decision of whether to get an abortion, but in Israel, there is an organization called Efrat that works to deter secular Israeli women from terminating pregnancies.
In Israel, abortion is legal and paid for through its health-care system.
According to Efrat’s website, “As a result of Israel’s present economic situation, more women are considering aborting for financial reasons. Efrat is determined to change that trend… Efrat educates women to the options available to them while providing them with the freedom to make an informed choice. If a woman is considering aborting for economic reasons, we ease the financial pressure by providing her with groceries and basic baby supplies.”
Canadian Jewish groups on abortion
In Canada, social services, including Jewish Family & Child (JF&C) and the National Council of Jewish Women, don’t offer resources specific to abortion, but support a woman’s right to choose and will help them access resources available to the general community, if needed.
Monica Auerbach, JF&C’s director of service, explained that because abortion is a medical issue that tends to start with a doctor, a patient would not typically be referred to her organization, but noted that “some of our clients who are already in counseling may be facing that” issue.
“I do know that Jewish women have been accommodated and supported well in some of the mainstream organizations. As part of our counseling, we would support a woman no matter what her decision or choice was. We support the woman and whatever issue she is presenting to us, whether it be marriage problems, problems with her children, abuse issues – whatever the issues are, we support them,” Auerbach said.
‘The societal cone of silence about abortion only makes a hard decision harder’
Sharon Allentuck, president of the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, said the organization believes in a woman’s right to choose and that belief has been part of its mandate for decades.
Its guidelines stipulate that it supports “reproductive health education, research and access to care, including abortion rights and family planning.”
Rabbi Splansky said she once offered her support to a woman who made the decision to terminate a pregnancy by bringing her to a mikvah following the procedure.
“The ritual was helpful for her to emotionally heal and spiritually ready herself for the next chapter of her life,” Rabbi Splansky said.
“Certainly there is a need for support groups for women and men who have struggled with this heavy decision. The societal cone of silence about abortion only makes a hard decision harder.”