My Body, My Decision?

Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Sometime in the mid-1980s, I was sitting in a Women’s Studies Class at the University of Michigan and our teacher asked us to arrange our chairs in a circle. She walked us through the rules of creating what we now would call “safe space” (i.e., respectful listening, no judgment) and then asked us to discuss our experiences with abortion.
I had no experiences with abortion to share so I remained quiet.
However, I was invested in the topic because I believed strongly in a woman’s right to choose. And with the limited money I was making working part-time, I was a donor to NARAL (National Abortion Rights Action League) and MARAL (Michigan Abortion Rights Action League).
In time, several women in the class did share their experiences of having abortions and then an additional woman of similar age began to tell of her experience.
This young woman (somewhere between 18-22) told us she’d had one abortion when she was X age, and then another abortion when she was Y age and yet, another abortion when she was Z age. I didn’t catch all the details because…
I was extremely shocked and eventually, realized I was angry and horrified.
One abortion was a youthful lack of planning. Two abortions might be another mistake. But three abortions! For someone who wasn’t even 22 years old?!?
The adjectives that came to mind were pretty darn judgmental: Irresponsible. Idiotic. Horrified.
She wasn’t raped. She didn’t say she was coerced in any way. She wasn’t poor (as she noted when we asked her questions).
Yes, I believe that a woman should have the right to choose, but not to use abortion as if it were birth control.
Around the same time, I remember hearing a phrase from one of my Catholic friends: When you want it, it’s called a baby; when you don’t, it’s called a fetus. And I remember thinking: That’s actually true.
It didn’t change my perspective on a woman’s right to choose, but it did reinforce my belief that abortion is the taking of potential life and shouldn’t be treated casually.
That perspective, I later learned, was indeed the perspective of all branches of Judaism.
Even Reform Judaism issued a responsum in 1985: “The Reform Movement has had a long history of liberalism on many social and family matters. We feel that the pattern of tradition, until the most recent generation, has demonstrated a liberal approach to abortion and has definitely permitted it in case of any danger to the life of the mother. That danger may be physical or psychological. When this occurs at any time during the pregnancy, we would not hesitate to permit an abortion. This would also include cases of incest and rape if the mother wishes to have an abortion.”
However, the responsum was careful to conclude with the observation: We do not encourage abortion, nor favor it for trivial reasons, or sanction it ‘on demand.’”
This week’s Parashat Mishpatim has one of the key texts relating to the issue of abortion.
As Rabbi Elie Spitz (emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel, Orange County) wrote in his blog:
Why does Judaism differ from Christianity on abortion? It all comes down to two missing nouns in this week’s Torah reading. Let’s take a look at that text to see the ambiguity:
“When men fight and knock a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, if there is no tragedy [to whom?], the responsible party must pay compensation… But, if tragedy ensues [to whom?] the penalty shall be life for life.” [Exodus 21:22-23].
In the Septuagint, the early translation of the Bible into Greek, the missing nouns are filled in with the word “child.” On that basis, Augustine (354–430 CE), the influential early Church Father, stated that human life begins with conception.
For the rabbis of the early centuries of the Common Era, the gaps in the verses are filled in with the word “mother.” Hence, if the fetus dies, but the mother survives, then only monetary compensation is due; if the mother dies, then life for life.
In the Jewish tradition, human life only begins with birth. In the womb, there is “life” that warrants increasing protections as it develops, but the mother’s health takes priority.
In his commentary on Mishpatim, after similarly comparing Catholic and Jewish interpretations of the verses, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Z”L concurs:
One thing, however, is clear. Causing a woman to miscarry – being responsible for the death of a foetus – is not a capital offence. Until birth, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person.
He also adds something I never knew:
The key distinction was, as Augustine put it, between embryo informatus and embryo formatus – an unformed or formed foetus. If the foetus was formed (i.e. more than forty or eighty days had passed since conception: there was argument over the precise period), then causing its death was murder. So taught Tertullian in the second century. So the law remained until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V ordained that abortion at any stage was murder. This ruling was overturned three years later by Pope Gregory XIV, but re-introduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869.
So even the Popes themselves did not always agree that abortion at any stage was murder!
Rabbi Spitz (Conservative) concludes his Dvar Torah by writing:
There is no such thing as the plain reading of the law. Words by their very nature are ambiguous. This is true for interpreting Holy Scripture, the Constitution, or any legislation. We are challenged to determine right and wrong with humility and deep wisdom in order to act justly.”
Rabbi Sacks (Orthodox) similarly concludes his Dvar Torah by writing:
Without tradition and all the Sages meant by ‘the Oral Law’, we would simply not know what a verse means. Between a text and its meaning stands the act of interpretation.”
So we need to interpret words / Torah— that’s clear.
And we need trained, wise interpreters of the words/ Torah— that’s clear.
But who gets to become the trained, wise interpreters of the words / Torah?
In Orthodox Judaism, for the vast majority of its practitioners, only men are given this authority. Which means, only men are qualified to interpret when and how a woman (or a child) might die because of a pregnancy that threatens her physical life or mental health.
Women as a class have no standing to determine their own fate in these situations.
In conclusion, now you know why I am neither in favor of abortion on demand (no questions asked, no education, no options), nor of abortion outlawed as murder with no exceptions.
And now you also know why I can never submit to a system in which women’s voices, women’s brainpower, and women’s spiritual leadership potential is not allowed (yet) to stand equally alongside those of men. To me, that is not justice.
I know that for many Orthodox women, such exclusion presents but a small part of an overall fulfilling, G!Dly way of life. For me, and many non-Orthodox women, that exclusion is essential.
And yet….
Despite our differences, we are all one people with one fate — so we find ways to love one another, work with one another, and disagree with passion and respect.

Shabbat Shalom!