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Rabbi Daniel Brenner

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Every Sperm Is Sacred? Jewish Perspectives on Contraception

Posted: 03/ 5/2012 9:37 am

Should Catholic hospitals that receive federal dollars be required to provide their employees with contraceptives?

This was the heated debate on talk radio as I drove up the New Jersey Turnpike recently. I tuned in because I was one of the many people who had seen the photo of the all-male congressional panel on contraception making its way around Facebook. One of these men, Rabbi Meir Soloveichek, had contributed two prominent pieces for the Wall Street Journal and Jewish Ideas Daily. But after having read them both, I noticed something odd -- he never once mentioned the Jewish position on contraception.

I scratched my head and thought: Why didn't he bring up Jewish ideas about contraception in an essay about the contraception debate written for a webzine specifically called Jewish Ideas Daily? Isn't that the idea?

Soloveichek was linking arms with Catholic and Evangelical leaders to share his opinions about the church-state issue. But while I applaud his support of religious liberty, I could not help but wonder: Doesn't it depend on whose religious liberty we want preserved?

Here's my point: According to Jewish religious law, there is a moral obligation, in certain cases, to provide contraception to women. These cases are clearly outlined in greater detail in the Talmud and in subsequent sources, but they all are in relation to a contraceptive device known as the mokh.

What is a mokh? This is a small wool plug soaked in liquid worn near the cervix that was used to block sperm from reaching eggs, a sort of pre-modern diaphragm. Two thousand years ago, all women who were concerned for reasons of their own health that a pregnancy would be life threatening to them or to their nursing infant were religiously required to wear a mokh. In other words, every sperm was not sacred -- and sperm that ended up caught in the mokh was properly disposed of. (Condoms, by the way, were not developed until 1,500 years later, and were not approved by the rabbinic authorities for other reasons.)

The pro-contraception position for women in the Jewish tradition is connected to an underlying principle: Life is always favored over potential life. Since using contraceptive devices kept woman healthier, it was determined that this was ultimately the best way to promote life. Similarly, if a woman is at risk of dying due to a complicated pregnancy or birth, we are commanded to save the life of the woman over the life of the baby.

And this is what, I believe, is really behind the debate stirring underneath what is being dubbed the "contraception mandate." I know that for many Catholics it is a troubling idea that we would choose to save the life of the mother by terminating the life inside her. And I've heard from discussion with Catholic friends in the past the question: "If it is the woman's time to die, shouldn't we let her pass on and have the baby live?"

But life is, tragically, not so simple. A recent case at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Phoenix reminds us of the complex realities that thousands of women face. A 27-year-old mother of four was pregnant and seriously ill with pulmonary hypertension. She was bedridden and it was clear that her pregnancy would lead to the death of both her and her potential fifth child. Sensing that this was an extreme case, and that death was highly likely if she did not terminate the pregnancy, Sister Margaret McBride decided to speak with the woman. The woman wanted to terminate her pregnancy and Sister McBride allowed for an abortion to proceed. The procedure saved the life of the mother. Sister McBride was excommunicated from the church.

I will leave it to Catholics to debate the morality of this case, but it does point to the profound difference between the Catholic position and the Jewish position on life.

Whose morality (and religious liberty) should be favored then in laws concerning health care -- that of the employee or of the employer? Should Catholics working at Jewish hospitals only be able to receive coverage for what is seen as ethical care according to rabbinic authorities? Should Jews working at Catholic hospitals be restricted to coverage for papal-approved care? These scenarios seem like an ill fit for an America where both Catholics and Jews are minorities and there are also various Protestant associated hospitals of different denominations.

The questions that exist around reproductive health care and religious ethics are profound and challenging and are faced by thousands of families and individuals every day. Yet, some of the loudest voices in the media are labeling contraception coverage an attack on religious liberty. It is clear that Rabbi Soloveichik and the men that he joined on that congressional panel were successful in pitching America one side of the story. I trust that most folks are smart enough to see that real concerns about religious liberty are on both sides. But I also sense that it will take many more people speaking up about their religious and ethical decisions regarding health care, women and men, to help Americans to appreciate the complexity of medical issues that touch on both the fragility and the sanctity of life.