Recently I wondered about what the Bible might have to say on the subject of abortion and how that hot button issue is viewed within Judaism today? In doing an internet search, I only found two Old Testament texts cited as addressing abortion, if only indirectly. One was Exodus 21:22-23 which deals with a woman being injured, apparently accidentally, and thus experiencing a miscarriage. If the woman dies the law seems to require life for life. Not so if only the baby dies. This, of course, is only indirect evidence. The other verse is in Genesis 9:6 which prohibits killing in general.
What is especially noteworthy is the fact that the Old Testament never directly and unequivocally addresses the subject of abortion. That is strange, since abortion was widely practiced in the cultures which surrounded ancient Israel. A specific prohibition against terminating a pregnancy would seem a logical one from the perspective of setting Israel apart as a moral example. But that is not the case.
This lack of specific biblical guidance on the subject has opened Judaism up to the very same debates about abortion that roil our culture in general. Down through the ages, the human administrators of the Jewish law have formulated additional laws to cover abortion. The Mishnah, a well respected commentary on the Jewish Law, requires that a pregnant woman guilty of a capital offense be executed before she delivers. In fact, there is a specific instruction on how to kill the fetus before the woman is stoned. From this, it is obvious that all Jewish tradition does not recognize the sanctity of life from conception forward as proposed by many.
Within Judaism in this country there is diversity of opinion about abortion, but Pew reports that 83% of respondent Jews support legal abortion in most cases. That is in marked contrast to many Christians here. As you would expect, Orthodox Judaism is much more opposed to abortion than other Jewish groups, religious and secular.
One more point to consider in the Jewish perspective is the law concerning abortion in the state of Israel. Somewhat amazingly, I learned that Israeli law allows for free, publically funded abortions in almost all cases. Of course, the religious authorities there are wildly divided on their personal views of abortion, but secular law is squarely on the side of a largely unlimited right to terminate pregnancy.
I looked at Israel for two reasons. It is obviously a major source of Jewish opinion on the subject. But additionally I note that the religious people who most vociferously oppose abortion here are often the same group that has undying support for the nation of Israel, as God’s special people. This same religious group also exhibits a lingering attachment to old Jewish laws, like the Ten Commandments, eye for an eye judgment, and the requirement to tithe. It is, therefore, very significant that the Old Testament as interpreted by many Jews and the actual practice in current day Israel is not aligned with the abortion position of these same evangelical, fundamentalist Christians.
It should be apparent that abortion is and has been a complex issue, not subject to the kinds of moral certainty which both sides like to project in the debate. There is no clear cut biblical evidence to support the pro-life people. They turn to science instead, the information source they routinely dismiss. The pro-choice group sometimes seems too dismissive of the trauma of abortion and comes across as cold and emotionally detached. But at least they don’t propose to use the force of law to require that everyone mirror them.
I’d like to throw one more Bible verse into the confusion of this debate. Genesis 2:7 says And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. One could make the biblical case that Adam’s body was formed first, and he then became alive in the eyes of God when he drew a first breath.
Making abortion legal is not legislating for abortion. It is simply removing it as a legal issue and making it a moral one, a matter of conscience.
Questioning the religious basis for opposing abortion is not an effort to trivialize the practice. Abortion is profoundly problematic for many of us. That, however, is not a reason to criminalize it. We have enough crimes and criminals already. Instead we could support public policy steps to make abortion much more rare without criminalization. But it’s more appealing to look to someone else to turn agonizing moral complexity into criminal certainty.