Abortion and Judaism 101

Posted by on Aug 16, 2020

The Rabbinic Judaism does not allow abortion of the baby in the mother’s womb. However, it is not easy to draw such a conclusion on “abortion and Judaism” given the fact that the real life can bring extremely difficult complications.

This article does not claim to exhaust this controversial and complex issue of abortion in the mother’s womb, but only to present the side of the Rabbinic Judaism on the matter.

Whether or not the following rabbinic sources on the matter of abortion are right or wrong, it is up to the reader to decide. No comprehensive discussion is being sought in this article on the issue of abortion; we will stick with the simple meaning of the Mishnah on abortion in Judaism.

Abortion is strictly forbidden in Judaism for economic reasons or for unwanted child. No rabbi will ever permit abortion under these circumstance. Period.

However, under extremely pressing circumstances, the rabbis may permit and even mandate abortion. Such extreme circumstances are discussed in the Mishnah.

Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud; a collection of early oral interpretations of the scriptures that was compiled about AD 200. Mishnah Oholot 7:6 discusses whether it is permissible to abort a fetus in order to save the life of the mother. This mishnah is accepted as the foundation for all Jewish discussion of abortion. It reads thus in Hebrew and in English,

הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד, מְחַתְּכִין אֶת הַוָּלָד בְּמֵעֶיהָ וּמוֹצִיאִין אוֹתוֹ אֵבָרִים אֵבָרִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחַיֶּיהָ קוֹדְמִין לְחַיָּיו. יָצָא רֻבּוֹ, אֵין נוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, שֶׁאֵין דּוֹחִין נֶפֶשׁ מִפְּנֵי נָפֶשׁ

If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and brings it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child]. But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another. Mishnah Oholot 7:6

There are extremely complex rulings the Rabbinic Judaism on the matter of abortion. Some of them are even hard to read, much less to be accepted by a simple mind.

What the above quote from Mishnah Oholot 7:6 is saying is this. While still in the womb, the fetus’s life does not take precedence over the mother’s. Therefore, Mishnah permits doctors to cut the fetus up in order to save the life of the mother.

However, if the child has emerged from the womb, abortion is forbidden or anything that can harm the child because it is forbidden to take one life in order to save another. The child is considered to be a “life” once most of the body has emerged from the womb. This is the simple reading of Mishnah Oholot 7:6 which, again, is considered the authority in Rabbinic Judaism on the matter of abortion.

Generally, abortion is permitted in Judaism only when the mother is in a grave danger and will almost certainly die unless she aborts. Those who adopt a restrictive approach would permit an abortion only if the woman’s life is at risk, while others on the more liberal side would permit it even if it is far from certain that she will die, or in case when her mental health is in jeopardy.

These general principles in Judaism open the door for free and loose interpretations, and different decisions could be ruled in favor of abortion.

Again, what Mishnah Oholot 7:6 is saying is that while still in the womb, the fetus’s life does not take precedence over the mother’s. This means that the child’s life may not be saved if the woman’s life is in a serious condition.

Some authorities even go so far as to not call it a “life”. Therefore, the “doctors” are given the permission to cut the baby up even during labor in order to save the life of the mother.

To the most extreme some authorities permit abortion even when there is no danger to the mother’s life. For example, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Fradkin of Lublin notes that there is disagreement about whether abortion is a Torah prohibition or a rabbinic one, but concludes that even if it is a Torah prohibition, abortion is permitted to protect the health and well-being of the mother, even if her life is not in danger.

Rabbi Yosef Chayim of Baghdad raised the possibility that “if having the baby will disgrace and shame the family, and constitute a desecration of God’s name, having an abortion is considered a great need” and is permissible (Rav Pe’alim). In this category are included cases such as illegitimate child, rape, and incest.

“The health and well-being of the mother”! Who and what determines “the health and well-being of the mother”? Since the majority of the Rabbinic authority do not believe that a fetus is considered a living human being, the rabbis may come very quickly to the decision of preserving the health and well-being of the mother. How about the health and well-being of the baby? Read more here, “The real face of abortion America must see it to believe it“.

In the case of the health and well-being of the baby, the rabbis can rule that forbidding abortion in such cases as birth defects and the possibility of mental complications, “can cause terrible suffering, both to the parents and to the unborn child. Families sometimes break apart under such strain” (Peninei Halakhah, Simchat Habayit V’Birchato 9:3:5).

In conclusion, the rabbis maintain the principle that the prohibition of abortion on non-Jews is from the Torah and the prohibition on Jews is rabbinic. And, therefore, if the prohibition of abortion for Jews is rabbinic, i.e. it is under the authority of the rabbis, then clearly in cases of “great need”, it can be permitted.

The reader is encouraged to read the articles, “Donald Trump President of the unborn“, and “President Trump and the meaning of sanctity of life“.


May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.