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).
“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).
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) 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.