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Jewish view of abortion

As the nation bifurcates into unprecedented anger or rejoicing over two opposite philosophical positions on abortion, I, as an Orthodox Jew, can only look on in sadness. One need not choose between extremes of “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” My position stems from Jewish law, Halachah, which addresses abortion as a matter of case law. The case law navigates between competing claims, not between irreconcilable philosophical abstractions such as when life begins, or who should control the womb — the mother or the government.

The case law begins in Exodus 21:22 in an instance of abortion-as-tort — the killing of a fetus incidental to an assault on a pregnant women. Her claim for damages for the loss of the fetus trumps any counter claim by the killer.

This puts in place the pragmatic approach of Jewish law, which generally prohibits abortion out of profound respect for human life, but without fixating on when life begins. Rather, a potential abortion becomes a case of competing claims: Does the fetus endanger the life, physical or mental, of the mother? If so, abortion is allowed or mandated, depending on how strong the medical evidence for the claim of danger, but without derogating from the status of the fetus as a human life, and without leaving the choice up to an individual. In the competing claims, the mother’s life trumps the fetus’ life; and it is the best possible objective reading of Jewish law by the doctor and the halachic expert, not the autonomous decision of the potential mother, that is controlling. At the same time, her input with respect to her own health is an indispensable determinant within the objective decision.

The matter is always fraught with intense emotion, but the label of killer — the conceit of “pro-life” — and the label of misogynist — the conceit of “pro-choice” — are equally avoided.

In the interests of religious freedom, I must always have the option of abortion available, but entirely outside the value system of individual choice that justifies abortion on demand.

Without revealing confidences, in my experience at least, some women contemplating an abortion, even when halachically approved, go through tremendous trauma. It is as weighty a decision as they might ever face. The process of rabbinic and medical consultation with utmost sensitivity does not diminish the personal, overwhelming burden.

One the other hand, in my experience at least, for some women abortion is not traumatic at all; hence my reference to “abortion on demand.”

Going beyond my own experience, I offer the following:

Kalman Samuels is widely known in Israel, but not for what I am about to relate.

Kalman and Malki Samuels are the visionary founders of Shalva, now the largest organization in Israel for special needs children and their families. Shalva’s building — for the children and their families — is one of the most beautiful in the Middle East.

Kalman is dogged. Innovation. Fundraising. Building design. And this is just the technical side. Shalva, acting in the spirit of Kalman and Malki, are accepting of all manner of special needs children.

Their organization, Shalva, has won the Israel Prize and this year Kalman had the signal honor of lighting one of the candles at the Israel Independence Day ceremony.

The Samuels’ path began with a tragedy that befell their son Yossi. Now you can get the whole story in Kalman’s page-turning, inspiring memoir, Dreams Never Dreamed (reviewed in the IJN, Sept. 18, 2020).

What is not well known about Kalman Samuels are his individual kindnesses, unrelated to Shalva.


Decades ago, a woman worked in the Samuels’ home. She mentioned that she was planning an abortion. Kalman Samuels was horrified.

She said, “You dati’im [religious Jews] are taken aback by abortion. For us secular Jews, it’s not a big deal. I’ve already had an abortion, so I’ll have another one.”

Kalman asked why.

She told him that her financial circumstances could not bear another child. Kalman asked how much she needed; and, if she had it, whether she would carry the pregnancy through.

Further conversation revealed, if I recall correctly, that her living arrangements were quite modest; there was no room for another child. In any event, she needed $55,000 for another child in her family.

Kalman was hardly a person of means, and $55,000 was worth a lot more back then than now. Did Kalman mortgage his apartment? Did he raise the funds? I do not recall, but in any event he gathered $55,000 and gave it to his domestic help.

She had the child.

It was not a loan.

It was gift.

Actually, not strictly speaking a gift, but a way to facilitate the birth of a Jewish child.

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com

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