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Of Earthquakes and Abortion

Of Earthquakes and Abortion

We are willing to extend Herculean efforts to save a life, even when the possibility is remote. Why should limiting abortion on demand be any different?


The recent tragic earthquake in India, like similar catastrophes, has yielded reports of survivors like Viral Dalal, who was discovered unscathed five days later underneath the rubble of a collapsed building.

It is for such joy amid misery that dedicated rescue workers labor mightily to remove debris and search for signs of life, even when there seems little reason to imagine that, buried beneath tons of concrete and metal, a human being may live and breathe. Our hearts and our minds, moreover, insist that even the mere possibility of saving a life is cause enough to warrant such action, even if it drains our energy and resources.

What, though, if searching for a possible survivor would take an even greater toll, if it would interfere, say, with an important religious obligation?

The Talmud, the essential Jewish legal text, posits just such a case: the collapse of a not-known-to-have-been-occupied building on the Sabbath, when, according to Jewish religious law, or halacha, an act like digging through the rubble transgresses the prohibition against work on the Sabbath, constituting a desecration of one of the Ten Commandments. Notwithstanding that fact, however, the Talmud requires one to assist immediately in the task of moving the debris until it is ascertained that no survivor is languishing beneath the ruins.

Even the remote possibility of saving a life renders otherwise important concerns secondary.

Even the remote possibility of saving a life, the Talmud is saying, renders otherwise important concerns secondary and, with only the rarest exceptions, demands our every effort. In fact, even if the violation of Sabbath might yield only short-lived survival, the added moments of life take precedence, according to halacha.

While it may be that halacha is accepted as binding today only in certain Jewish circles, one imagines that Jews of all levels of religious observance would readily accede to the wisdom and morality of this particular ruling. Life is important enough, most reasonable people would say, for even its possibility to concern us.

Which might lead us to wonder why the prospect of saving possible life by limiting abortion on demand engenders so vehement a reaction among so many Jewish Americans.

Consider: The Pope, Supreme Court Justices and feminists may all have beliefs or opinions about when life begins and when it is morally acceptable to terminate fetal life, but no one can in any way objectively prove that his or her view is definitively correct. They can all argue, to be sure, but the dialectic will necessarily be limited to the "is so!"/"is not!" genre.

So what we have, in the end, at least from a secular perspective, is an essentially unanswerable question. Life becomes real, priceless and inviolable at some point, at latest after birth (though Princeton Professor Peter Singer apparently disagrees even there). What, though, of a viable fetus just before birth? A day before its third-trimester "pre-birthday"? Or one even younger? Or one not yet viable?

Ought we not concede, in all humility, that as objectively unanswerable as these questions may be, there is at least a possibility of life at these stages? And, if so, that even the mere possibility of life must concern us desperately as human beings.

Unfettered "reproductive freedom" is a concept entirely alien to Judaism.

And for us Jews, shouldn't the teachings of Judaism on this sensitive subject be at least relevant to our thinking? The Torah does, after all, have something to say about when life begins, and under what circumstances pregnancy may be terminated. Under Jewish law, while a Jewish woman may procure an abortion in a situation where her life is endangered by continued pregnancy, and perhaps in situations where the pregnancy poses grave danger to her health (a matter of dispute among respected rabbinical authorities), abortion is otherwise prohibited.

Stated simply, unfettered "reproductive freedom" is a concept entirely alien to Judaism. Why then does it appear to command so much allegiance among American Jews?

An earthquake, and the Herculean efforts to find and rescue potential survivors, should shake all of us up to confront not only the terrible end of so many lives but the question of the beginnings of so many others. We imperil our status as caring, thinking beings if we refuse to consider whether the "facts on the ground" here in our nation, the effective acceptance of abortion on demand, might just reflect a very imperfect approach.

In other words, we insist on pretending that abortion is somehow a simple issue of personal choice, rather than a complex one of human life.

With thanks to Am Echad Resources

February 10, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 27

(27) Jeff Pomykala, October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

re: Michael Lewyn's response

Thanks for writing in your comment! Seriously! It's nice to see people trying to think through the issues, and taking the time to get involved in any way....But I have to rebutt you:
If you were right and the laws should only apply to observant Jews who actually believe that G-d is real and his laws are Just and True, by your logic then, how dare us try to tell secular, unbelieving society that "Thou shalt not kill", "Thou shalt not steal", "Thou shalt not commit Adultery" (or ANY other law) are all absolute Truths applicable to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs.....
Truth is Truth, regardless of ones beliefs, my friend. And in this case, YES, "Jewish" law should be secular law just as the "Jewish" law to not kill or steal is.....See the Truth???


~(...and due to the crazy nature of this shallow day and age, I need to add the disclaimer that this is NOT applicable to self-defense, so don't write some ignorant comment about it being "wrong" to kill in those cases" ~ THINK IN DEPTH, PEOPLE!!)

May there be true peace in Israel....soon.

(26) Michael Lewyn, October 3, 2002 12:00 AM

But should Jewish law be secular law?

Your article does a reasonably good job of explaining why abortion should generally be discouraged by Jewish law. But just because something is prohibited for observant Jews by halakha does not mean it should be prohibited for everyone by secular law. So even though I might use Am Echad's arguments to discourage my (to date imaginary) wife or daughter from having an abortion, I would be reluctant to use such arguments to support a law banning abortion for everyone.

(25) Jeff Pomykala, July 8, 2002 12:00 AM

....only to save the mother's life

To those of you who feel abortion should be an "unlimited right" - that it's just a choice for the pregnant woman only to decide - Please ask yourself this question:
Suppose Moshiach's apparent delay in coming is simply because.....he was aborted a few years ago by a mother who didn't want the 'inconvenience' of bearing a child....
I don't mean that to be disrespectful. I mean that to hopefully help someone to think beyond their own selfish interests and "rights" and to see that, by aborting on demand (as opposed to ONLY when the mother's life is TRULY in jeopardy), we have destroyed how many Einsteins and Mozarts?? Or even just regular You and Me's!! And have we aborted the Moshiach?? Certainly G-d wouldn't allow that, would He? Or does he give us what we choose to live.....

No, of course I don't really believe that Meshiach was aborted or that even G-d would allow that possibility - but certainly that argument is food for thought and could hopefully make one who might be contemplating an abortion to take pause.....and think. Just WHO are you aborting?? and why...
May there be true peace in Israel - soon.

(24) Rosanne Armstrong, August 22, 2001 12:00 AM

Value of Life

I very much appreciate your article. It's very discomforting to me to hear the loud "Silence" of the Jewish Community concerning abortion. If any group of peoples should speak out against this horror most emphatically it should be us. At least start the directive in the synagogues. It is loudly "silent" there as well.
Thank you,
Hebrew name - Shoshana

(23) Anonymous, August 22, 2001 12:00 AM

Torah is not really pro-life in a classical sense of the definition

It appears to me that Jews sometimes forget that Torah permits abortions for medical reasons (when the fetus can kill the mother). Based on this Torah view Jews are no longer pro-life in the eyes of the church and anti-abortion activists who claim that is always forbiden to kill the fetus (fetus according to them has the same legal status as an adult person). If we side with the conservatives in our government the right of having medical abortions will be taken away from us too. Women will be forced to have abortions performed by doctors who are not licenced to do so, this might create significant health risks for women.Therefore, I don't think it is fare and wise for Jewish people to take anti-abortion stand.(as a religious person one has the choice of not having an abortion while at the same time one should have an option of having one if, G-d forbid, one's life is at risk).

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