Jewish view of abortion relating to New York State Reproductive Health Act

Ethics Morality
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Background: New York State passed an updated law on abortion, S2796. Enacts the reproductive health act; revises provisions of law relating to abortion.

In response the Rabbinical Council of America issued a statement in which they strongly opposed this law. See the statement on their Facebook page, RCA Opposes New York State’s Reproductive Health Act.

This response was stricter than many traditional Jewish views on the topic, and was analyzed by Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

This RCA statement (which, appropriately, comes out the week we read what’s considered the biblical precedent for life beginning at birth) is fascinating on so many levels:

1. It demonstrates the extent to which some of the Orthodox right has adopted the language of the Christian right, rather than the language of halakha (personhood?) Which is funny, because they’re always accusing progressive Jews of adopting Democratic party language (even when we’re actually deep in halakha.

2. The halakhic literature on abortion is complicated! I’m not going to get into it here, but let’s just say that their blanket assertions erase the nuances of centuries of debate, virtually all of which assumes that a fetus is not a person. Some opinions do consider abortion murder; others permit it when the child would be born with a life-threatening condition (famously, Tay Sachs). And all (as RCA acknowledges) privilege life of the mother (because the fetus is *not* a person.)

3. Ultimately, the most authentic position the RCA could take is “it’s between a woman & her rabbi (& doctor)” (to paraphrase John Kerry). That would preclude opposing legislation that gives the rabbi space to pasken. Why would the RCA want New York State to dictate halakha?

4. This is just more evidence of why people with uteri should be involved in interpreting halakha.

Also, for those interested in facts, here’s what the law actually says: it protects the right to abortion when “the patient is within 24 weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, or there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs received rabbinic ordination from The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and is the author of There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition.

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