Q. Does Judaism permit abortions?
A. Judaism regards children as a blessing and procreation as a religious and moral obligation. Through children a couple cement their own relationship and ensure personal and cultural continuity. Through children they enrich the world: who knows whether the child they bring to life may not become a Mozart or an Einstein?
To deny a child the opportunity to live and to take its place in the world is to impoverish the world. Abortion is therefore a vote against the future. For a woman to claim the right to decide what will happen to her unborn child is the ultimate selfishness: it ignores the potential rights of the child. It is a mark of moral anarchy: has any human the right to assume God’s prerogative to permit or deny life? Abortion on demand is therefore totally rejected by Judaism.
However, the unborn child is not yet a person in the full sense of the word. To destroy it is grave moral offence but not homicide in the technical sense: Rabbi I J Unterman, a former chief rabbi of Israel, called abortion an “appurtenance to murder”. This choice of words might be debatable, but it recognises the need for terminology capable of characterising abortion as a moral if not a legal wrong.
While Jewish sources agree that there is life in the foetus, it is not identical with the life that comes after birth. Abortion is therefore the destruction not of a life but of a potential life. For Judaism this is not a theological issue involving the ensoulment of the embryo, which is deemed one of the “secrets of God”, but a technical problem of whether the foetus has an independent legal status.
The consequence is that in certain therapeutic circumstances Jewish teaching permits abortion. The fundamental issue is maternal risk. If there is a proven hazard to the mother’s life or health, including mental health, she has to be safeguarded even if this means destroying the foetus. The mother has a manifest hold on life: her status is therefore certain in contradistinction to the foetus, which is not yet capable of independent living and may or may not prove to be viable.
Some but not all rabbinic authorities regard other genuine maternal needs as acceptable grounds for an abortion. Likewise, a minority of rabbis allow abortion where there is a high probability of bearing a deformed child, but the majority reject this on the basis that a deformed or abnormal child has a claim to life and can become a useful and loved member of society.