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When does human personhood begin?

Belief system 4: Jewish beliefs

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Background:

Within Christianity, Judaism, Humanism and other religions and ethical systems, the morality of abortion is grounded in the precise belief of the nature of the fetus. There is a general consensus in North America that when the fetus becomes a human person, then abortions should be severely limited. Most would confine abortions at that stage to situations that threaten the life of the pregnant woman; a very few would eliminate access to abortions totally. The problem that generates so much controversy is that no consensus exists in society over the point, between conception and birth, when personhood begins.

Halacha (Jewish law) does define when a fetus becomes a nefesh (person). "...a baby...becomes a full-fledged human being when the head emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a 'partial life.' " 5 In the case of a "feet-first" delivery, it happens when most of the fetal body is outside the mother's body.

Jewish beliefs and practice not neatly match either the "pro-life" nor the "pro-choice" points of view. The general principles of modern-day Judaism are that:

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The fetus has great value because it is potentially a human life. It gains "full human status at birth only." 2

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Abortions are not permitted on the grounds of genetic imperfections of the fetus. 

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Abortions are permitted to save the mother's life or health.

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With the exception of some Orthodox authorities, Judaism supports abortion access for women.

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"...each case must be decided individually by a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law." 5

Historical Christianity has considered "ensoulment," the point at which the soul enters the body) as the time when abortions should normally be prohibited. Belief about the timing of this event has varied from the instant of fertilization of the ovum, to 90 days after conception, or later. There has been no consensus among historical Jewish sources about when ensoulment happens. It is regarded as "one of the 'secrets of God' that will be revealed only when the Messiah comes." 1

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Abortion-related passages in the Hebrew Scriptures & Talmud:

The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b states that: "the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day." Afterwards, it is considered subhuman until it is born. 

"Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible and Talmud, states clearly of the fetus 'lav nefesh hu--it is not a person.' The Talmud contains the expression 'ubar yerech imo--the fetus is as the thigh of its mother,' i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant woman's body." 1This is grounded in Exodus 21:22. That biblical passage outlines the Mosaic law in a case where a man is responsible for causing a woman's miscarriage, which kills the fetus  If the woman survives, then the perpetrator has to pay a fine to the woman's husband. If the woman dies, then the perpetrator is also killed. This indicates that the fetus has value, but does not have the status of a person.

There are two additional passages in the Talmud which shed some light on the Jewish belief about abortion. They imply that the fetus is considered part of the mother, and not a separate entity:

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One section states that if a man purchases a cow that is found to be pregnant, then he is the owner both of the cow and the fetus. 

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Another section states that if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, that her conversion applies also to her fetus. 

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Abortions needed to save the life of the mother:

A passage from the Mishna quotes a Jewish legal text from the second century CE. It describes the situation in which a woman's life is endangered during childbirth. A D&X procedure (often called Partial Birth Abortion in recent years) might be used under these conditions today. However, this technique was unknown in ancient times. The legal text states that the fetus must be dismembered and removed limb by limb. However, if "the greater part" of the fetus had already been delivered, then the fetus could not be killed. This is based on the belief that the fetus only becomes a person after most of its body emerges from the birth canal. Before personhood has been reached, it may be necessary to "sacrifice a potential life in order to save a fully existent human life, i.e. the pregnant woman in labor." 1After the forehead emerges from the birth canal, the fetus is regarded as a person. Neither the baby nor the mother can be killed to save the life of the other.

A second consideration is the principle of self-defense. Some Jewish authorities have asserted that if the fetus placed its mother's life at risk, then the mother should be permitted to kill the fetus to save herself, even if the "greater portion [of its body] had already emerged" from the birth canal.

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Other abortions:

Some Jewish authorities have ruled in specific cases:

bullet One case involved a woman who becomes pregnant while nursing a child. Her milk supply would dry up. If the child is allergic to all other forms of nutrition except for its mother's milk, then it would starve. An abortion would be permitted in this case. An abortion of the fetus, a potential person, would be justified to save the life of the child, an actual person.
bullet An abortion would be permissible if the woman was suicidal because of her pregnancy.
bullet Jewish authorities differed in a case where a continued pregnancy would leave the mother permanently deaf. She obtained permission for an abortion from the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
bullet Many Jewish authorities permit abortion in the case of a pregnancy resulting from a rape, if needed in order save her great mental anguish.
bullet Most authorities do not permit abortion in the event that the fetus is genetically defective or will probably pick up a disease from its mother. The rationale is that even though the child will be malformed, disabled, or diseased, it would still be formed in the image of the creator. Rabbi Eliezar Waldenberg is one authority who believes otherwise. He "allows first trimester abortion of a fetus which would be born with a deformity that would cause it to suffer, and termination of a fetus with a lethal fetal defect such as Tay Sachs up to the end of the second trimester of gestation." 3 
bullet An abortion is sometimes permitted if the woman suffers great emotional pain about the birth of a child who will experience health problems.
bullet Abortions are not permitted for economic reasons, to avoid career inconveniences, or because the woman is unmarried.
bullet In a very unusual case, a woman in New Jersey was pregnant with a hydroencephalic fetus. Its large head prevented a conventional delivery. The physician recommended a Caesarian section. But the woman asked for a D&X procedure on the grounds that the fetus' life was doomed anyway and a C section would weaken her uterus for her next pregnancy. Her rabbinic authorities agreed. 4

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Political aspects of abortion access:

Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are formally opposed to government regulation of abortion. They feel that the decision should rest with the woman, her husband, doctor and clergyperson. Some Orthodox authorities agree with this stance. 

All recognize that the decision to have an abortion is a difficult one, and is not to be undertaken without considerable thought. 

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet Judaism
bullet Abortion: all aspects; all points of view
bullet What the Hebrew Scriptures and Christian Scriptures say about abortion
bullet Christian belief about abortion: past and present

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. R.A. Zwerom & R.J. Shapiro, "Religion and choice: Judaism and abortion," at: http://www.rcrc.org/  
  2. Citation removed at the request of the article's author
  3. Daniel Eisenberg, "Abortion and Halacha," JSOURCE, at: http://www.us-israel.org/
  4. M.Z. Warhman, "Partial birth abortion", JSOURCE, at: http://www.us-israel.org/
  5. "Ask the Rabbi: Abortion - Yes or No," at: http://www.aish.com/

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Site navigation:

 Home page > Hot" topics > Abortion > Religious aspects > here

or Home page > World Religions > Judaism > here

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Copyright © 2000 to 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-AUG-16
Latest update: 2005-NOV-09
Author: B.A. Robinson

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