The big news this week is Justice Alito’s draft opinion about Hobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a Mississippi case involving a statute banning abortion after 15 weeks. Roe v. Wade, a 1973 Supreme Court case, made abortions constitutional, with some qualifications. Roe held that abortions are permitted up until 28 weeks, but that they could be prohibited entirely after 28 weeks, so long as the laws contained exceptions for cases when they were necessary to save the life or health of the mother. The Hobbs case offered a choice for the Supreme Court: reduce the number of weeks abortion is permitted to 15 weeks and let Roe survive, or overrule Roe, meaning the States would be the arbiters of abortion law. The draft opinion overrules Roe.
This is a ripe time to review the Conservative Movement’s views of abortion.
“A Teshuvah on Abortion,” written by Rabbi Isaac Klein in 1959, was officially adopted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards in 1983. The Committee’s conclusion was abortion “is morally wrong. It should be permitted only for therapeutic reasons.”
I own a book authored by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Matters of Life and Death, a Jewish approach to modern, medical ethics. It was published in 1998, and Rabbi Dorff is the chair of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, so his opinion carries weight.
The Mishnah states, “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, it is permitted to cut up the child inside her womb and take it out limb by limb because her life takes precedence. Once the child’s head has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another.” We consider abortion a procedure before the mother gives birth; Rabbi Dorff addresses optional abortions.
The physical and mental health of the mother is paramount. If the physical health of the mother is in danger, abortion is indicated. If the mental health is in danger, that’s more complicated.
Some rabbis take a harsh look of the mental health of the mother, some rabbis take a lenient look of the mental health of the mother. Some mothers see a depressing future to rear a Downs Syndrome child, some mothers look forward to rear a Downs Syndrome child. It is up to the mother. Rabbi Dorff says it is all right to abort a Tay-Sachs fetus, but Rabbi Dorff hedges on other genetic diseases. Rabbi Dorff also insists that abortions should not be obtained to abort a fetus that has characteristics the parents might not consider desirable (such as curly hair or a short stature).
The bottom line: Jewish law requires abortion to protect the life or physical health of the mother. Jewish law permits abortion to protect the mental health of the mother (some rabbis define “mental health of the mother” loosely). But, by and large, Jewish law prohibits abortion.
In practice, much of the discussion is moot. Rabbi Dorff says, “Jewish [women] in North America and in Israel engage in abortion almost Indiscriminately.” If a woman approached me and asked what my views on the Jewish law on abortion, I would probably be on the liberal view of mental health.