On Wednesday I facilitated a discussion at the Solomon Schechter High School of Long Island on Jewish perspectives on the use of human stem cells for research and medical treatments, as one offering in a series of sessions discussing medical ethics. Until now, the discourse surrounding stem cells has always included abortion, because the primary sources for these cells have been aborted fetuses and human embryos created in vitro.
Parashat Mishpatim, which features an eclectic litany of laws, includes the Torah's only statement that relates to the Jewish position on abortion:
וְכִי-יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים, וְנָגְפוּ אִשָּׁה הָרָה וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ, וְלֹא יִהְיֶה, אָסוֹן--עָנוֹשׁ יֵעָנֵשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָשִׁית עָלָיו בַּעַל הָאִשָּׁה, וְנָתַן בִּפְלִלִיםWhen men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensures, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman's husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. (Exodus 21:22)
The Torah tells us that the death of a fetus is not to be understood as murder or manslaughter, but rather subject to monetary damages. Rabbinic literature sees the fetus as a limb of the mother, not an independent person, and as such her life outweighs that of the unborn child:
האישה שהיא מקשה לילד, והוציאוה מבית לבית--הראשון טמא בספק, והשני בוודאי. אמר רבי יהודה, אימתיי, בזמן שהיא ניטלת בגפיים; אבל אם הייתה מהלכת, הראשון טהור--שמשנפתח הקבר, אין פנאי להלך. אין לנפלים פתיחת קבר, עד שיעגילו ראש כפיקה
If a woman suffers hard labor, the child must be cut up in her womb and brought out one limb at a time, for her life takes precendence over [the fetus’] life. If the greater part has already come out, it must not be touched, because one life does not supersede another. (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6)
As such, Judaism has always accepted that life begins at birth, not conception, and that abortion is permissible, or even mandatory, when the mother's life is in danger. When the Conservative movement's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) addressed abortion in 1983, its conclusion was as follows:
“An abortion is justifiable if a continuation of pregnancy might cause the mother severe physical or psychological harm, or when the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective." (A Statement on the Permissibility of Abortion, by Rabbis Ben Zion Bokser and Kassel Abelson)
Given the tremendous sensitivity about these issues, and that we also see God as (as we say in every Amidah, three times daily) "Melekh meimit umhayye" / the Master of life and death, we should always bear in mind the sanctity of life and the great care with which such decisions should be made.
Returning to the Torah, as I pointed out last night to members of the Adult Bat/Bar Mitzvah class, not only do the laws of Parashat Mishpatim give us a glimpse of what issues were important to our ancestors and how they have played out throughout our history, they also apply to today's world. Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
P.S. If you'd like to read the CJLS teshuvah regarding the use of stem cells, you may find it here.