Early Jewish and Christian Views on Abortion: A Comparison for Discussion

The question regarding abortion in our modern era continues to be one of the most important topics of our age; given the complexity about questions pertaining to the beginning of life, along with the technological advances that are constantly being made, no one religious tradition can be reduced to a particular perspective. Christians and Jews alike each struggle with this matter. Rather than arbitrating the issue concerning abortion, I would much rather present the texts and let the readers along with their friends debate the topic with passion. As with any intellectual discussion, it is always important to be respectful of the Other’s position. We can disagree without being disagreeable. That being said, one of the questions that ought to be raised is, “How does an individual’s personal theology affect the way s/he views abortion?” Context is everything! Another question readers might want to argue is, “What are the points of convergence and divergence among the ancients regarding abortion?”

* Judaic Sources on Abortion

Philo says: “But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape (Exod. 21:22) in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, the man who injures the pregnant woman shall die; for such a creature as that is still considered a human being, whom he [the assailant) has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world” (Special Laws 3:108:3).

Josephus says, “The Law orders all of the offspring to be brought up and forbids women either to abort or to do away with a fetus, but if she is convicted, she is viewed an infanticide because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race” (Against Apion, 2.202).

On the authority of R. Ishmael it was said: A heathen is executed even for the murder of an embryo (Sanhedrin 57b).

If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life [nefesh] for that of another (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6).[1]

“When a pregnant woman is about to be executed, one does not wait for her until she gives birth; but if she has already sat on the birth stool, one waits for her until she gives birth… Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: If a woman is about to be executed one strikes her against her belly so that the child might die first, to avoid her being disgraced” (T.B. Arachin 7a-b).[2]

Elsewhere in the Talmud, we find a remarkable conversation that is purported to have taken place between the Roman Emperor Antoninus (believed to be the famous Roman philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius, who once visited the Holy Land in 175 CE, not long after the failed Bar Kochba revolt)[3] and Rabbi Judah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. The question posed is especially fascinating: When does the soul enter the human body? Is it from the moment of conception, or is it from the time the embryo is formed? At first Rabbi Judah argued for the latter, but Antoninus offers an ingenious counter argument:  He objected: ‘Can a piece of unsalted meat go for three days without becoming putrid?’ (i.e., Likewise, if the sperm-cell is not immediately endowed with a soul, it would become putrid, and then could not fertilize the ovum.) Rather, one must say that life begins from the moment of conception.’ Rabbi Judah conceded this point and even cited a scriptural reference supporting Antoninus’ point of view  (T.B. Sanhedrin 91b). It is a pity that Rabbi Judah did not cite a more explicit verse from the book of Jeremiah 1:4-5:

The word of the Lord came to me [Jeremiah]:

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you;
Before you were born, I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet concerning the

I would just like to add that unlike Christianity or even Islam, Judaism is much more comfortable with the ambiguity of a biblical text’s meaning. Interpretation is never something that is black and white. With respect to the abortion question, one can find a liberal view permitting abortion; one can find restrictive views that condemn it. Much depends upon the specific context of what a rabbi is dealing with–there are no clear cut answers. As is often the case, the interpretation is very subjective and in the eyes of the beholder.

* Early Christian Sources on Abortion:

Basil says: “She who has intentionally destroyed [the fetus] is subject to the penalty corresponding to a homicide. For us, there is no scrutinizing between the formed and unformed [fetus]; here truly justice is made not only for the unborn but also with reference to the person who is attentive only to himself/herself since so many women generally die for this very reason” (Correspondence  with Anfilochius, Bishop of Iconia, First Letter 2).

Ambrose says: The poor get rid of their small children by exposure and denying them when they are discovered. But the rich also, so that their wealth will not be more divided, deny their children [when they are] in the womb and with all the force of parricide, they kill the beings of their wombs [while they are] in the same fruitful womb. In this way life is taken away from them before it has been given (Hexameron V.18.58).

Barnabas says: “Thou shalt not be of doubtful mind as to whether a thing shall be or not. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord in vain. Thou shalt love thy neighbor more than thine own soul. Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (Epistles of Barnabas, C. 19).

Jerome says, “You may see many women widows before wedded, who try to conceal their miserable fall by a lying garb. Unless they are betrayed by swelling wombs or by the crying of their infants, they walk abroad with tripping feet and heads in the air. Some go so far as to take potions, that they may insure barrenness, and thus murder human beings almost before their conception. Some, when they find themselves with child through their sin, use drugs to procure abortion, and when (as often happens) they die with their offspring, they enter the lower world laden with the guilt not only of adultery against Christ but also of suicide and child murder” (Epistula 22).

[1] According to Maimonides if a pregnant woman is having difficulty in giving birth, the child inside her may be excised, either by drugs or manually [i.e., surgery], because it is regarded as pursuing her in order to kill her. But if its head has been born, it must not be touched, for one may not set aside one human life for that of another, and this happening is the course of nature [i.e., an act of God: the mother is pursued by heaven, not the fetus]  (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach 1:9).

[2] This discussion (most probably a theoretical one as there is great doubt among historians that Jewish courts meted out capital punishment during the rabbinic period) seems cruel and inhumane, but it is actually based on compassion. The rabbis rushed to execute the pregnant woman and ruled against waiting till she gave birth in order to keep her from suffering. Their view is that making the condemned woman await her execution until she has delivered the baby (possibly months) is a form of “inuihadin”—causing suffering in the course of meting out  judgment (see Tosafot ibid).

[3] The Soncino Talmud notes: “The bearers of the names given here have been variously identified. S. J. Rappaport) is of opinion that our Antoninus is Antoninus Pius (138-161) and that Asverus is his adopted son Marcus Aurelius (161-180), who was also called Annius Verus — here contracted into A-S-Verus. According to Jast, however, (Allgem. Gesch. des Isr. Volkes, Berlin 1832, II, 129 and Gesch. d. Israeliten IV, 88 seq.) our Ant. is Caracalla (211-217) and Asverus is his son Alexander Severus (222-235). Z. Frankel (Warsaw, 1923, 203) identifies Ant. with Lucius Verius Antoninus who was co-regent with Marcus Aurelius and is reputed to have issued decrees favourable to Jews. Differing from all the foregoing authorities, Graetz (Geschichte, Vol. IV, pp. 450ff). claiming the support of Origen’s Epistola ad Africanum, asserts that Ant. is none other than Alexander Severus who was surnamed Antoninus in the East, and that the ‘Rabbi’ who is associated with Ant. in the narratives that follow here and in many others is not R. Judah I but his grandson R. Judah II who flourished near the middle of the 3rd century. That he, too, was sometimes called by the title Rabbi alone is, indeed, borne out by the phrase in the Mishnah (infra 35b) ‘Rabbi and his court’ which is taken to refer to R. Judah II” (Notes to Avodah Zara 10a).

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