Summary Judaism and abortion Judaism does not forbid abortion, but it does not permit abortion on demand. Abortion is only permitted for serious reasons. Judaism expects every case to be considered on its own merits and the decision to be taken after consultation with a rabbi competent to give advice on such matters. Strict Judaism permits abortion only in cases where continuing the pregnancy would put the mother's life in serious danger. In such circumstance (where allowing the pregnancy to continue would kill the mother) Judaism insists that the foetus must be aborted, since the mother's life is more important than that of the foetus. Jewish law is more lenient concerning abortions in the first forty days of pregnancy as it considers the embryo to be of relatively low value during this time. Abortions because of defects in the foetus or to protect the mental health of the mother are forbidden by some schools of Judaism and permitted by others under differing circumstances. The argument for allowing such abortions is normally based on the pain that will be caused to the mother if the pregnancy is allowed to continue. Sanctity of life and abortion Judaism has a supreme concern for the sanctity of human life. According to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5): Whoever destroys one life is as if he destroyed a whole world, and whoever preserves a life is as if he preserved the whole world. Apart from an overall regard for the sanctity of life, Judaism finds other reasons to forbid abortion: killing a foetus breaks God's command to populate the world killing a foetus destroys something made in God's image killing a foetus is wanton destruction of part of God's creation killing a foetus destroys something that could become a being killing a foetus is an unjustifiable act of wounding it is wrong to injure oneself Classical Jewish arguments about abortion are mainly concerned with the distinction between killing someone who is fully a person, and someone who is not so fully a person. There's more about these arguments later in this article. Abortion is not explicitly referred to in the Hebrew Bible - so the abortion arguments have to draw analogies from the text. In fact Biblical Jewish teaching doesn't deal at all with the circumstance of an abortion deliberately induced with the consent of the mother - that concept seems completely unknown. That an Israelite parent might consider intentionally aborting a foetus seems almost beyond the moral horizon of the Torah's original audience. For in the moral environment where the law was first received, the memory of genocide and infanticide was still fresh [and] every birth was precious. Lenn E. Goodman, Judaism, Human Rights, and Human Values, OUP 1998 Top Acceptable circumstances Saving the mother's life Jewish law permits abortion to save the life of the mother - in fact it insists on an abortion if this is necessary to save the mother. This is because the mother's life takes precedence over the life of the foetus. The danger to the mother must be clear and substantial, and the abortion cannot be done in the very last stage of pregnancy. The Mishnah states that where there is danger to the mother's life, an abortion can be performed at any stage from conception until the head of the infant emerges: If a woman has (life-threatening) difficulty in childbirth, one dismembers the embryo within her, limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over its life. However, once its head (or its 'greater part') has emerged, it may not be touched, for we do not set aside one life for another Ohalot 7:6 The mother and mental distress There is no consistent view as to what level of mental distress on the part of the mother is needed to justify abortion. However almost all rabbis would agree that if continuing the pregnancy would cause the mother to commit suicide, then abortion is justified. (But this presumably requires that appropriate action to combat the mental distress be considered before abortion is permitted.) Lesser levels of mental distress are unlikely to justify an abortion in the eyes of most rabbis. Rape or incest Abortion in these cases would only be permitted if continuing the pregnancy would cause the mother sufficient distress to endanger her health. Saving the mother 'from' the foetus A related (but subtly different) argument operates not on the priority of the mother's life or personhood, but by classifying the foetus as a 'rodef', a 'pursuer' who is threatening the life of the mother. The foetus may therefore be killed in such a case in order to prevent the mother being killed. The great Jewish commentator Maimonides (who was also a doctor) wrote: It is a negative commandment (Deut. 25:12) not to have pity for the life of an aggressor (rodef). That is why the Sages ruled that if a woman is in hard travail the embryo is removed, either by drugs or surgery: because it is regarded as one pursuing her and trying to kill her. Maimonides, MT, Hilkhot Rotzeah 1.9 This argument justifies destroying something of high value (the foetus), because it is (actively) endangering a person's life. The humanness of the foetus is devalued because the foetus is threatening a life. Abortion for the sake of the baby Traditionally Judaism does not regard the suffering that an abnormal baby might endure as a sufficient reason to justify an abortion, and most rabbis would not give permission for a foetus to be aborted for that reason. However some rabbis would give permission in such a case if it is argued that the prospect of having a deformed and suffering child is causing the mother severe mental distress. They do this on the grounds that continuing the pregnancy is a threat to the mother. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (an authority in this area) ruled that screening of embryos is forbidden if the only purpose of doing so is to check for birth defects which might lead the parents to ask for an abortion. (Screening so that the foetus may be treated if there is a problem is, of course, a good thing.) However another distinguished rabbi, Eliezar Waldenberg, has suggested that abortion for the sake of the baby is sometimes permissible. Waldenberg accepts abortion in the first trimester of a foetus which would be born with a deformity that would cause it suffering, and abortion of a foetus with a fatal defect such as Tay Sachs (a genetic defect found particularly in Asheknazi Jews) within the first two trimesters. Some rabbis have suggested that abortion might be acceptable where Down's syndrome is detected, or where the mother has German measles. This view is controversial. Top The legal status of a foetus Part of the mother's body Traditional Judaism regards a foetus as a being that is developing towards being a person. The easiest way to conceptualise a foetus in halacha [Jewish law] is to imagine it as a full-fledged human being - but not quite. Daniel Eisenberg, M.D. In Judaism a foetus is not considered to be a person until it is born. Before that it is regarded as a part of the mother's body, although it does possess certain characteristics of a person and some status. During the first forty days after conception, it is considered 'mere fluid'. From an ethical point of view, then: a foetus is not a person but a foetus should nonetheless be protected to some extent because it is growing towards full personhood so a foetus should not be destroyed or harmed except for very good reasons The high status given to a foetus is demonstrated by the fact that Jewish law permits desecration of the Sabbath in order to save the life of a foetus. According to the Halacha or Jewish Law a foetus is considered part of the mother's body and not a full human being. The book of Exodus (21:22) says... When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman's husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life... "Other damage" is taken in this text to mean "the death of the mother." This passage is interpreted as saying that causing the foetus to miscarry is a civil wrong that gives rise to the right to financial restitution - which indicates that the foetus is not a person - but killing the mother is murder, because the mother is a person. The distinguished commentator Rashi wrote: For as long as it did not come out into the world, it is not called a living thing and it is permissible to take its life in order to save its mother. Once the head has come forth, it may not be harmed because it is considered born, and one life may not be taken to save another. This passage, too, makes it clear that Judaism regards a foetus as a lesser human being than a human being who has been (at least partially) born. But although the foetus has no personhood and therefore none of the rights and privileges of a human being, it must still be protected as a potential human being, and not casually harmed or destroyed. The Talmud (commentary on Jewish oral traditions) gives other examples on the status of the foetus. The first involves the sale of a cow, which is subsequently found to be pregnant. No payment is made for the sale of the foetus to the buyer and the foetus belongs to the buyer. The second example concerns the conversion of a pregnant woman to Judaism. Jewish law regards the conversion valid for her future child as well, requiring no separate conversion for it after birth. Judaism and war Judaism does not regard violence and war to promote justice as always wrong. It accepts that certain kinds of war will be ethically justified, and that it is sometimes morally acceptable to kill people. Before declaring war or starting a battle there must be a genuine attempt to make peace and avoid the conflict. Jewish law only permits combatants to be deliberately killed in war. Innocent civilians must be given every opportunity to leave the field of combat before a battle starts. Old Testament In much of the Old Testament God gives his clear approval to war. He is identified as a warrior, and is shown as leading the Jews in conflict, bringing them victory, protecting them from enemy forces. But at the same time the Old Testament is filled with Jewish longing for peace. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2 Peace Peace is seen as something that comes from God and that will only be fully realised when there is justice and harmony not just between peoples, but within individual communities. Some of the present day arguments put forwards in the context of terrorism take up this idea that there can be no real peace without justice for all.The importance of peace to the Jewish people is emphasised by 'Shalom', the conventional greeting between Jews from the earliest times, which means 'peace'. Self-defence The Talmud states that a person (a Jew or a non-Jew) is permitted to kill "a pursuer" to save his own life. This ruling applies to both individuals and groups of people (including states). The Rabbis The ancient rabbis thought that there were three types of war that a Jewish state should consider: Obligatory wars: these are wars that God commanded Jews to fight. They include the biblical wars against the Canaanites and against the Amalekites. Defensive wars: (These are also obligatory.) If the Jewish people are attacked, they are obliged to defend themselves. This doctrine covers pre-emptive strikes (which is when a country attacks an enemy who is about to attack it). Some writers think that a war of self-defence doesn't count as a war, but is merely the normal action that can be taken under the Jewish law dealing with attackers and based on Genesis 9:6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed." Optional wars: These are wars undertaken for a good reason, and where no other form of "negotiation" remains possible. The rules of war The Jewish tradition is clear that before declaring war, or starting a battle, there must be an attempt to make peace - any military action without doing this is probably unlawful (Deuteronomy 20:10). Only combatants are allowed to be killed intentionally in war. Military commanders should give non-combatants a good chance to leave the combat area before the battle starts. (This is usually impractical in modern warfare.) However some authorities say that if a non-combatant knowingly stays in a place where a battle is about to take place, they lose their protection. Judaism, euthanasia and suicide ...The message of Judaism is that one must struggle until the last breath of life. Until the last moment, one has to live and rejoice and give thanks to the Creator... Dr Rachamim Melamed-Cohen, Jewsweek, March, 2002 The Jewish tradition regards the preservation of human life as one of its supreme moral values and forbids doing anything that might shorten life. However, it does not require doctors to make dying last longer than it naturally would. Jewish law and tradition regard human life as sacred, and say that it is wrong for anyone to shorten a human life this is because our lives are not ours to dispose of as we feel like all life is of infinite value, regardless of its duration or quality, because all human beings are made in the image of God saving someone from pain is not a reason to kill them nor is it lawful to kill oneself to save oneself from pain but there is a limit to the duty to keep people alive if someone's life is ending and they are in serious pain, doctors have no duty to make that person suffer more by artificially extending their dying moments it is also acceptable to ask God in prayer to remove a person from their pain and suffering Active euthanasia Jewish law forbids active euthanasia and regards it as murder. There are no exceptions to this rule and it makes no difference if the person concerned wants to die. Shortening life It is wrong to shorten a life even if it would end very soon, because every moment of human life is considered equal in value to many years of life. The value of human life is infinite and beyond measure, so that any part of life - even if only an hour or a second - is of precisely the same worth as seventy years of it, just as any fraction of infinity, being indivisible, remains infinite. Lord Jakobovits, former UK Chief Rabbi So even if a person is a goses (this word means someone who has started to die and will die within 72 hours), any action that might hasten their death - for example closing the eyes or moving a limb - is prohibited. Passive euthanasia Jewish law says that doctors (and patients) have a duty to preserve life, and a doctor must do everything he/she can to save a patient's life - even if the patient doesn't want them to. But this isn't the end of it. There is some freedom for doctors in cases where a patient is terminally ill. Although a doctor cannot do anything that hastens death, "if there is something which is preventing the soul from departing" a doctor can remove whatever is preventing the dying person's soul from departing. In more modern language this means that if something is an impediment to the natural process of death and the patient only survives because of it, it is permitted under Jewish law to withdraw that thing. So if a patient is certain to die, and is only being kept alive by a ventilator, it is permissable to switch off the ventilator since it is impeding the natural process of death. The relevance of pain Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach have ruled that a dying patient should not be kept alive by artificial means where the treatment does not cure the illness but merely prolongs the patient's life temporarily and the patient is suffering great pain. Pain relief medicine can be given even though it may hasten death, as long as the dose is not certain to kill, and the intention is not to kill but to relieve pain. Hastening one's own death Human beings don't have the right to kill themselves, so someone who is terminally ill and in great pain cannot take action to speed their own death. Even if they are mentally fit to make that choice, the rule that life is sacred prevents them from shortening their life. A passage in the Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, who was being burned alive by the Romans. His pupils urged him to end his suffering quickly by opening his mouth and inhaling the flames. He replied, "It is better that He who gave [me my soul] should take it rather than I should cause injury to myself." It's also against Jewish law to help someone to kill themselves, since one is not allowed to enable another person to break Jewish law. Does the rule ban treatment that may kill? Doctors are commanded to do their best to heal the sick and prevent suffering. So it's OK for a doctor to put a patient through life-endangering treatment if that is likely to extend the patient's life or reduce their pain. Biblical precedents The first example of Jewish euthanasia comes in the Bible: And a certain woman threw an upper millstone upon Abim'elech's head, and crushed his skull. Then he called hastily to the young man his armor-bearer, and said to him, "Draw your sword and kill me, lest men say of me, 'A woman killed him.'" And his young man thrust him through, and he died. Judges 9:53-54 There's a more famous case at the start of 2 Samuel, where the seriously injured King Saul orders a young soldier to kill him, rather than let him be captured alive. When King David heard what the young soldier had done, he had him executed; to show that euthanasia was equivalent to murder, and that the defense of superior orders was valueless.
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