10/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Jewish Context of the Abortion Debate

Never let it be said that the Republican Party is not sensitive to changing moral standards. Its 2008 Platform has dropped its prior opposition to internet gambling. At the same time, however, the GOP stands firm in its opposition to abortion in any way, shape or form, for any reason whatsoever.

Once upon a time, in prehistoric 2000, John McCain wanted to change the Republican Platform's demand for a Constitutional amendment banning abortion to include exceptions for rape, incest, and danger to the life of the mother. But that was then and now is now. In 2000, McCain was still a maverick of sorts. Today, he panders to the social conservatives who make up his base. Thus, when Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, warned earlier this year that any attempt by McCain to modify the GOP's absolute opposition to abortion would be tantamount to "political suicide," McCain clearly listened. This year, he has let it be known that he would not say or do anything to try to change the Republican Party. "I have a 25-year pro-life record, in the Congress, in the Senate," he told Pastor Rick Warren at the August 16, 2008 Saddleback Church forum, "and as president of the United States, I will be a pro-life president and this presidency will have pro-life policies. That's my commitment -- that's my commitment to you."

The Republican Party's pro-life position is in direct conflict with Jewish law. Twenty-five years ago, the Conservative Movement's Committee of Jewish Law and Standards pointed out that while "Jewish tradition is sensitive to the sanctity of life, and does not permit abortion on demand . . . it sanctions abortion under some circumstances because it does not regard the fetus as an autonomous person."

While a fetus is indeed the beginning of a creation in the image of God, Jewish law allows for, indeed may require, an abortion if, in the words of Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, a noted Orthodox authority on Jewish medical ethics, "there is a direct threat to the life of the mother by carrying the fetus to term or through the act of childbirth." Moreover, Dr. Eisenberg continued, "Judaism recognizes psychiatric as well as physical factors in evaluating the potential threat that the fetus poses to the mother. However, the danger posed by the fetus (whether physical or emotional) must be both probable and substantial to justify abortion. The degree of mental illness that must be present to justify termination of a pregnancy has been widely debated by rabbinic scholars, without a clear consensus of opinion regarding the exact criteria for permitting abortion in such instances. Nevertheless, all agree that were a pregnancy to cause a woman to become truly suicidal, there would be grounds for abortion."

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agrees that "the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. (That is why Agudath Israel , while we oppose Roe v. Wade's effective 'abortion on demand,' has not and would never favor a wholesale ban on abortion.) And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health."

In a similar vein, the position of the Conservative Movement, as set forth in the Statement on the Permissibility of Abortion adopted by the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards on November 21, 1983, is that "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."

Most Conservative rabbis and at least some Orthodox rabbis interpret Jewish law as allowing an abortion when the pregnancy is the result of a rape. Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovitz, the late Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, wrote that "several leading authorities incline toward a lenient verdict" with respect to an abortion following a rape, "particularly when the mental health of the mother might be seriously affected. Also, a consideration in favor of an abortion would be a rape committed on a married woman or involving other forms of capital immorality (i.e., adultery or incest)."

At the Saddleback Church forum, Obama told Pastor Warren that "if you believe that life begins at conception, then -- and you are consistent in that belief -- then I can't argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you. What I can do is say: Are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies?"

It is inconceivable to me that anyone who supported Hillary Clinton would now even consider voting for John McCain and Sarah Palin whose Supreme Court appointments -- justices like Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas - would eviscerate and strive to completely overturn Roe v. Wade. From a Jewish perspective, the Republican Party's desire to ban all abortions violates our religious rights and freedom. We should not want to impose our views on others, but we must insist that our core beliefs be similarly respected.

Menachem Rosensaft is a lawyer in New York City

(This article was first published in slightly different form in the New York Jewish Week.)

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