ALONG WITH THE belief that Judaism does not claim to have the ultimate “truth” about God, the almost fanatical pursuit of justice is a fundamental tenet in Jewish tradition. Because of these principles,“Jewish tradition has a firm adherence to keeping religious views out of laws which impact all citizens” (Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg).
Religious freedom has often been ignored in the debate over abortion. The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It’s important to understand that the current abortion bans and the overturning of Roe v. Wade, take away the ability for Jews and those in other faith traditions to exercise their religious freedom.
When people claim abortion is a sin against God, or that the unborn are persons in the sight of God from the time of conception, they are reflecting their own narrow religious view not shared by other religions.
Those who believe abortion is against their religion are free to “exercise” their faith by not getting one, but those who disagree should be free from laws which “establish” a religion.
Not only do 61 percent of all Americans support abortion rights, a Pew research study shows a high percentage of people from other religions believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases: Buddhists, 82 percent, Hindu, 68 percent, Historically Black Protestants, 52 percent, Jewish, 83 percent, Mainstream Protestants, 60 percent, Muslim, 53 percent, and unaffiliated, 73 percent.
When anti-abortion laws are passed using religion as a pretext, the question must be asked, “Whose religion?” The answer appears to be mostly evangelical Christians whose adherents favor abortion rights by only 33 percent.
Even Catholics are almost evenly split, 48 percent believing abortion should be legal to 47 percent against.
Thus one branch of Christianity desires to make its view of abortion the law of the land.
This is why the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision was based on the Fourteenth Amendment (equal protection and a right to privacy) and the Ninth Amendment (there may be other rights not listed).
That court understood that using religion in support of the ruling would put them into the untenable position of supporting one religious view over another.
“Though Jews are not monolithic in their views on abortion, most tend to believe the decision should be left up to the woman, her doctor, partner, and spiritual advisor. In no way should it be banned or severely restricted by a government, nor should strangers make this most difficult decision” (Ruttenberg, Abortion, Justice and Religion).
Even in Israel where a woman must provide her reasons for seeking an abortion, 99 percent of the petitions are approved.
Some abortion opponents defend their view with verses from the Jewish Bible which say God “knew us in the womb” (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalms 139:16). But this analysis is not a Jewish interpretation, and the translation from the Hebrew is inaccurate.
So what is the status of a fetus in Judaism? The Talmud says for the first 40 days of gestation, a fetus is considered maya b’alma, “only water,” and does not achieve the status of personhood until birth.
The Mishnah teaches that if the mother’s life is in danger, even in labor, the fetus may be sacrificed to save her life unless the baby’s head has emerged. Jewish law explains that a baby is not considered to have a soul until it takes its first breath.
“In situations where the mother’s life is not in danger, modern and contemporary legal decisions permit abortion in cases where a fetus may suffer gravely if carried to term or when a mother’s physical or mental health is in danger, or even when her psychological well-being may be at risk” (Ruttenberg).
Thus, Judaism holds that existing life should always take precedence over potential life, and a woman’s life and her pain should take precedence over a fetus. Not only does Jewish tradition view abortion as acceptable, it insists on it to preserve the life of the mother.
In our diverse society laws based on one religious view put us in danger of becoming a theocracy. We must remember that our Founding Fathers warned us about this. “The constitutional freedom of religion is the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights” (Thomas Jefferson).
It is time to work to maintain our religious freedom and thus, our democracy.
Kein yehi ratzon … may it be God’s will. Shalom.
Suzanne DeBey is a lay leader of the Port Angeles Jewish community.