What does Conservative Judaism say about Abortion?

Blurry image of a stethoscope with the words: What does Conservative Judaism say about Abortion

In this article, we will surface a number of different types of sources, primarily published in recent years by the Rabbinical Assembly, that express Conservative Judaism’s approaches and perspectives on abortion. You can access the RA’s list of statements, resolutions, and resources here:

Teshuvot (Jewish Legal Decisions)

The two most recent decisions regarding abortion published by the Committee for Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) are Rabbi Susan Grossman’s, “Partial Birth Abortion and the Question of When Life Begins” (2003) and Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner’s “Ein Dohin Nefesh Mipnei Nefesh” (2001).

You can find summaries of their decisions below. Quotes are taken from the respective decisions (teshuvah/teshuvot). We strongly recommend that the teshuvot are read in their entirety. Click here to read further teshuvot.

Partial Birth Abortion and the Question of When Life Begins (2003)

By: Rabbi Susan Grossman

Question:

When is an intact dilation and extraction procedure, popularly referred to as a “partial birth abortion,” permitted to be performed?

Core Considerations:

The question of the halakhic permissibility of the intact d and x abortion procedure,
popularly referred to as a “partial birth abortion,” relates to several questions under Jewish law that will be dealt with sequentially below:

    1. At what point does Jewish law consider a child born and how does that relate to the Jewish answer to the question of when human life begins?
    2. Under which conditions is a late term abortion permitted under Jewish law?
    3. Under what conditions would an intact d and x procedure, popularly labeled “partial birth abortion,” be permissible under Jewish law?

Summary of Halakhic Considerations:

“The fetus is considered part of its mother’s body rather than an independent identity until birth. We have seen that there is sufficient precedent in Jewish law to define birth as taking place not until the head or the majority of the body of the fetus exits outside the mother’s body into the air of the world. In the intact d and x procedure, termination takes place while the head and majority of the body of the fetus remain within the mother’s body.

The procedure would therefore be permitted under Jewish law…

Similarly, while Jewish law does not condone abortion as a form of birth control, abortion is permitted to protect the physical and mental health and well being of the mother.

Jewish law as it developed reflects a tightening of justifications for abortion, i.e. a greater hesitancy to permit abortion without significant cause, as the pregnancy proceeds from conception into the last trimester.

However, sufficient precedents exist to permit abortion where there is a serious risk to the health of the mother, or in the face of severe fetal abnormalities, even in the last stages of pregnancy. Serious health risk need not be immediately life threatening.

Anything which could cause long term damage to the woman or risk further complications without appropriate medical intervention would be sufficient to justify an abortion, just as such barometers are used to justify any serious surgery under Jewish law…”

Conclusion:

“Abortion is a serious matter not to be entered into lightly, out of respect for the potential life vested in the fetus. Nevertheless, Jewish law considers the fetus part of the mother’s body and not an independent being until birth.

Therefore, while the fetus is to be cherished as potential life, the mother’s life and well being takes precedence over that of the fetus until birth. Birth is defined as when the fetal head or majority of its body exits the mother’s body into the open air.

Since in the intact d and x procedure, termination takes place when the head and majority of the body remains within the mother, an intact d and x procedure would be among the abortion procedures permissible under Jewish law whenever maternal cause exists which otherwise justifies a late term abortion under Jewish law (i.e., to prevent danger to her physical health or in the face of severe fetal abnormalities causing maternal emotional distress) and when the woman’s physician determines that the intact d and x is the preferred procedure to protect her health and well being.

It is therefore permissible under Jewish law for an intact d and x procedure to be performed whenever the patient’s doctor deems it the preferable procedure in the best interests of the woman’s health and well being.”

Note: There are further details and it is recommended that one read the teshuvah in its entirety. For those interested, we encourage you to talk to your rabbi for personal support and guidance.

Ein Dohin Nefesh Mipnei Nefesh (2001)

By: Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner

Question:

Is “partial-birth” abortion permissible? Are Jews permitted to perform “partial-birth” abortions or have them performed upon them?

Summary:

“In sum, it appears that there is sufficient reason to ban the D & X procedure as a planned procedure of abortion to Jewish women and to Jewish practitioners since it appears, in the eyes of Jewish law, as at least possible that birth has already occurred.

There are ample voices within the professional community insisting that the procedure is never necessary. So, too, my obstetrical informants agree that the procedure is probably never necessary as a procedure of choice. One worries, however, that there may be rare instances when a fetus might get stuck in breech, in partial removal from the motherís womb, and the distress of the mother may leave little time for other alternatives. 

It is at that point of emergency that, to save the life of the mother, we may rely on our uncertainty and the corollary dictum כדאי הוא ר׳פלוני לסמוך עלוי בשעת הדחק that it is appropriate to rely on minority opinion in emergency dispensations to permit what we would in all other cases forbid. Thus we favor life in every case. Only the fear of the imminent loss of the mother can justify “partial-birth” abortion.

Between the forces of choice who would grant every woman the freedom to abort at will and those pro-life forces who would define life as beginning at conception and ban abortion completely, halakhah has championed a bright line conception whereby life begins at birth, but abortion proceeds only for good and sufficient cause. This is probably in line with the gut feelings of most Americans, as is broadly reported. 

But it is not the task of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards to rule for America. Rather it is our task to rule for Jewish women and Jewish practitioners. The clear line in our sources is birth. The clear intent is to favor life.”

Conclusions:

  1. Abortion is permitted before birth, but it is forbidden after the inception of life at the moment of birth.
  2. The moment of birth is in dispute, wherefore, to protect life, we rule that birth is at the earlier of the two proposed times, that is, when the fetus emerges from the womb into the birth canal with the major part of its head or, when in breech, with the major part of its body.
  3. Since the D & X procedure, that which is known as “partial-birth abortion,” is performed after that time, its use is prohibited on living fetuses both to Jewish women and to Jewish practitioners.
  4. In the case where a late term abortion is necessary, an injection to cause fetal death in utero before a D & X procedure commences is required.
  5. However, in emergency situations, when no other procedure is as likely to save the life of the mother or to avert serious threat to her life, then, and only then, the D & X procedure may be used on a living fetus in order to save the life of the mother.
 

Note: There are further details and it is recommended that one read the teshuvah in its entirety. For those interested, we encourage you to talk to your rabbi for personal support and guidance.

Rabbinical Assembly Resolutions

Each year the Rabbinical Assembly passes a number of resolutions on pressing matters impacting the countries and regions where we live, the State of Israel and the future of our shared world.

Passing the resolutions allows the RA to take positions on inyanei d’yoma (issues of the day) in a variety of arenas including US domestic policy, and on occasion in other countries, global issues and matters affecting the State of Israel.

Resolution on Right to Legal and Accessible Abortion in the United States (2021)

“If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death” (Leviticus 24:17). In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (21:12), the midrash teaches that a fetus is not a living person: “The Torah says ‘[one who strikes] a man’ (Exodus 21:12), meaning a viable human being, to exclude the fetus.” Expounding on this idea, we find in the teshuvah of R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, part 13, No. 102: “One should permit…abortion as soon as it becomes evident without doubt from the test that, indeed, such a baby (diagnosed with Tay-Sachs) shall be born, even until the seventh month of her pregnancy… If, indeed, we may permit an abortion according to the Halakhah because of ‘great need’ and because of pain and suffering, it seems that this is the classic case for such permission. And it is irrelevant in what way the pain and suffering is expressed, whether it is physical or psychological. Indeed, psychological suffering is in many ways much greater than the suffering of the flesh.” …

“Therefore be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly urge its members to support full access for all individuals to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare, and to oppose all efforts by federal, state, local or private entities or individuals to limit such access; and

Be it further resolved that the Rabbinical Assembly call on our colleagues to continue to protect reproductive freedom, through education, advocacy, and coalition building.”

Resolution on Reproductive Freedom in the United States (2012)

“Over the past four decades the Rabbinical Assembly has consistently supported reproductive freedom. This support is firmly based on our members’ understanding of relevant biblical and rabbinic sources as well as teshuvot – modern rabbinic responses.”

Statements

Conservative Rabbis Strongly Condemn U.S. Supreme Court Decision to Overturn Abortion Rights (2022)

The RA is outraged by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court to end the Constitutional right to abortion and deny access to lifesaving medical procedures for millions of individuals in the U.S., in what will be regarded as one of the most extreme instances of governmental overreach in our lifetime.

…This is a dangerous time for all people who are capable of becoming pregnant, especially those in categories who have poorer maternal outcomes, and particularly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) people or those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds…

The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly has repeatedly affirmed the right of a pregnant person to choose an abortion in cases where ‘continuation of a pregnancy might cause severe physical or psychological harm, or where the fetus is judged by competent medical opinion as severely defective.’…

…Based on our understanding of Jewish tradition and religious freedom, The RA supports the right to full access for all those who need abortions to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by governmental, private entities, or individuals to limit or dismantle such access.”

Click to read the full statement.

Conservative/Masorti Rabbis Denounce Leaked Supreme Court Decision to Overturn Abortion Rights (2022)

“According to a draft majority opinion, the Supreme Court appears poised to overturn its previous landmark decisions, Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, effectively ending the constitutional right to abortion. For more than fifty years, the Rabbinical Assembly has fiercely opposed efforts to limit abortion access and strongly supported reproductive rights…

The RA is deeply troubled by reports that the Supreme Court will soon nullify the constitutional right to abortion. Reproductive freedom is again under assault, this time from the highest court in our nation. The RA supports full access for all those who need abortions to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare and opposes all efforts by governmental, private entities, or individuals to limit or dismantle such access.”

Click to read the full statement.

Statement on the Texas Abortion Law (2021)
Click to read statement.

Statement on Reproductive Freedom (2019)
Click to read statement.

Additional Statements

Click here to read more statements on Reproductive Freedom.

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