Judaism can show the way on abortion

Between the furious extremes, most Americans want a reasonable compromise on abortion, and Judaism can offer hope and guidance

A protest against Focus on the Family's "Stand for the Family" event at the Xcel Energy Center, planned by OutFront Minnesota. Credit: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons.
A protest against Focus on the Family's "Stand for the Family" event at the Xcel Energy Center, planned by OutFront Minnesota. Credit: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons.
Donna Robinson Devine
Donna Robinson Divine
Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government Emerita at Smith College's Department of Government.

On the issue of abortion, the war over words is more lethal than the conflict over deeds. Even the terms used to describe the opposing sides are antithetical to each other. A self-named “culture of life” is arrayed against so-called warriors for “choice” and a woman’s right to decide whether or when to end a pregnancy. Each side hurls accusations of absolute immorality at the other, in what is deemed an existential conflict with dark implications for future disruption, uncertainty and tragedy.

Surveys indicate, however, that most Americans think about abortion in ways that are not typified by heated discourse or morally irreconcilable positions. They are not engaged in the kind of debate that pushes politicians to choose one uncompromising side or another. Ordinary men and women reject the idea that terminating a pregnancy is murder, but also believe abortion should not occur during the third trimester unless there is a danger to the mother’s life.

Roe v. Wade placed strict limits on abortion restrictions, and thus it is often held responsible for stirring up rhetorical hostilities. With sovereignty over abortion law returned to the people through state elections and legislation, politicians will now have to campaign in a new age without a Constitutional right at stake. Candidates still blinded by a discourse that rewards the ideological extremes may face a reckoning with voters who see common ground and want regulations that reflect it. A political discourse that ignores what the majority of the people want may be more than out of touch—it is likely to become bizarrely anachronistic.

That men and women are less interested in legal reasoning than in access to the services they need should be obvious. As a result, abortion may prove to be an issue that is worked out in practice long before it is worked out in political theory. Indeed, a consensus that may defy logic or even sacred principles has, in effect, already evolved, and it could result in support for regulations that align with the views of most people. For that reason, such rules would be far easier to implement than those proposed in divisive and bitter political debates.

Consider what might happen if abortion was declared illegal regardless of circumstance. A total ban on abortion in states red or blue would have to depend on, if not outright create, enforcement mechanisms to oversee travel, mail orders and internet searches. It would have to expand government power to monitor words and deeds and set boundaries on behavior that most Americans are likely to resent and perhaps resist. While Prohibition may not serve as a legal precedent for the abortion issue, it may prove a historical paradigm.

It would be an understatement to say that it is extremely difficult to turn a diverse assembly of views on abortion into laws across 50 very different states. This is particularly the case because the debate is often defined by ricocheting hashtags and media horror stories. There is one tradition, however, that offers both hope and guidance.

Jewish teaching recognizes abortion as an intimate practice with profound public consequences. The tradition that brought the words l’chaim (“to life” or, more properly, “for the sake of life”) into public discourse can hardly be accused of insensitivity to a culture that embraces life and promotes fertility.

Yet Judaism also displays sensitivity to the ethical dilemmas surrounding decisions to end pregnancies. Because there is no absolute agreement on abortion in Jewish religious law, those who deem abortion impermissible generally refrain from applying their own jurisprudential principles to particular cases. Rather, women confronted with an unwanted pregnancy are advised to work their way to a decision by talking to their own clerics.

Judaism not only recognizes the complicated stakes involved in ending a pregnancy, it also acknowledges that people should not be used as foils to advance a religious ruling, no matter how principled. Even in a context where population growth was pivotal to Jewish political interests—Mandatory Palestine—where Zionist leaders could not avoid thinking seriously about Jewish birthrates, abortion was available and practiced, despite being outlawed by Great Britain’s colonial laws.

The apparent consensus among men and women on abortion calls into question the conceit of a discourse in thrall to the language of rights; a discourse applied as frequently to the unborn as to women moments before they are able to deliver a healthy child. Just as a culture of life can allow for abortion, so can a right to choose be replaced by access to services accompanied by some restrictions.

Most people recognize that giving birth involves two lives, and that it is critical for those faced with an unwanted pregnancy to be able to make their own decision regarding whether both lives can be sustained. A culture of life is not only about a heartbeat.

Donna Robinson Divine is Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, Emerita at Smith College.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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