Why the Abortion Debate Hardly Exists in Israel

Dear Josep,

Abortion is one of the most hotly debated and divisive topics in American politics. It’s one of the most important issues on the agenda for aspiring politicians, and the discussion around it comes up over and over again during pre-election campaigns.

In Israel, on the other hand, no one so much as mentions it when elections roll around. Abortion is practically absent from political debates in this country–as much as anything is “absent from debate” in Israel, that is. 😉 But really, for a country full of Jews–who are constantly arguing about everything–this has got to make you ask: what’s going on here?!

Well, first, let’s look at what’s going on in the USA. On one end of the spectrum we have the ultra-conservatives, influenced mostly by Christian thought, who believe that a baby’s status as a person begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage of pregnancy is nothing short of murder and should be illegal just like murder is.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-liberals, who assert that no one has any right to tell a woman what to do with her body, regardless of the status of the baby at any stage during pregnancy, and therefore any woman should be free to abort her pregnancy at any time.

These are the voices that shout the loudest, but the truth is that the opinions of the majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two positions.

While many liberals find the ultra-conservative position horrible and wrong and possibly misogynist, I think it’s important to understand that if you truly believe that the status of “personhood” applies from the moment of conception, there is really no way around this as a serious moral problem. It angers me when I see people brush that opinion off as ignorance or bigotry. The question of exactly at which point a person becomes a person is not a matter of science; it is a matter of philosophy. If you spend more than half a millisecond thinking about it, it is not a simple question at all. According to Christian thought, a person becomes a person at the moment of conception, and at that point, the fertilized egg takes on exactly the same status as the mother. It is not ignorance or bigotry to think that no one should be allowed to kill what you believe is a person, even if that pregnancy and birth may cause suffering.

Fortunately for the world’s one and only Jewish country… the Jewish position on this matter is a lot more, shall we say, nuanced.

In the Talmud, there are several sources that state that in the first 40 days after conception, the embryo (or zygote, or blastocyst, if you want to get technical) is not considered a human by halakha. Maimonides says “All these forty dates, it is not a fetus, it is considered like water.” (This comes out to sometime during the 8th week of pregnancy.) So while Judaism would not advocate aborting a pregnancy in general, there is a lot more room to permit it in the first 40 days.

After this, the fetus has a sort of in-between status in Jewish law, one which I would call “potential personhood.” This applies practically in a number of ways.

Firstly: Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not consider abortion to be equal to murder. It is a sin, but not as grave as murder.

On the other hand, most authorities agree that it is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a fetus (a threatened miscarriage, for example), even though the fetus is not considered a person. One of the ideas behind the principle that allows us to break most commandments in order to save a life, is that we are desecrating one Sabbath so that the person we saved will be able to observe many Sabbaths in the future. This principle still applies in the case of a fetus, who will (hopefully) eventually grow into a person, who will (hopefully) keep the Sabbath. 🙂

From these two rulings we understand that the status of a fetus as a person is somewhat fuzzy.

Accordingly, the question of whether abortion is permitted has a rather fuzzy answer, too. As a general rule, of course, as we saw in the post about pregnancy and contraception, Judaism encourages us to bring life into the world, and therefore, by default, abortion is forbidden. However, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.

There is a well-known organization in Israel that deals with fertility and halakha, called Puah Institute. I have never needed to consult them for any reason–thank God–but the general sense I get from them is that their rabbis tend to be very lenient when it comes to aborting a pregnancy for “medical reasons” (a.k.a., the fetus suffering from some medical condition or other that would affect its quality of life and that of its parents and family). There is a general perception that religious Jews will not abort in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, and I personally would not (and not only for halakhic reasons). But I have heard of cases of the rabbis at Puah permitting a woman to abort in such a case where it was determined that having a child with this disorder would be catastrophic for the family.

Unfortunately, Israel is not particularly advanced when it comes to accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. Combine this with the fact that the Israeli medical system recommends more prenatal testing than any other country in the world, and you will understand why we also have the highest “medical abortion” rates in the world. I take moral issue with this, personally, but the point is that there is room in halakha to make allowances, even beyond what I personally am morally comfortable with.

So whether an abortion is permitted by halakha depends what the reason is, and it also depends on the stage of pregnancy. The later in the pregnancy, the harder it is to permit. Starting at around 24 weeks, a fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb. So if you think killing a 24-week preemie outside the womb is murder, it’s pretty hard to argue that killing a 24-week fetus inside the womb isn’t murder. Still, Judaism does not consider it the same as murder until the baby has been born. The guiding principle in halakha is “the life of the mother comes before that of the fetus,” meaning that if, even during childbirth, the mother’s life is threatened and could be saved by killing the fetus, halakha says that the fetus must be killed to save the mother’s life.

The fact that Judaism is more nuanced than Christianity on the topic of abortion is the reason the political conversation around it in Israel is so different from that in the USA. Abortions are legal until the third trimester and are funded by our national healthcare. There are theoretical criteria for an abortion to be approved for funding, such as the age of the mother, medical issues, or financial issues, and a woman must appear before a committee for approval. But in practice the request is almost never denied.

I consider myself to be “pro-choice,” in that I believe women should be allowed to have abortions even in some cases where I think it is morally wrong. But while I think women absolutely have the right to do what they want with their bodies, it’s more complicated than that when there is another life, or potential life, involved.

So I find the Israeli arrangement to be a good middle ground: abortions are legal and accessible, but not so accessible that women can take the decision lightly. It seems that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this arrangement as well.

Another illustration of how different the discourse in Israel is from that in the USA is the difference between our anti-abortion movements. The most well-known anti-abortion organization in Israel is called Efrat. They claim that they are not anti-abortion, but merely offer counselling for mothers who were considering abortion for financial reasons, and if said mothers decide to have the baby, Efrat offers them financial assistance. I have read articles that call their integrity into question and claim that they are more sinister than they seem, but still… compare and contrast to those lunatics shooting up abortion clinics in the USA. O.O

(Seriously Americans. WT*.)

Shelo neda, as we say in Hebrew… roughly, “may we never know from this.”

Love,

Daniella

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