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Judaism, Civility and Reproductive Choice

July 24, 2019
Posted by: Rabbi Abby Phelps

This week’s blog update is a guest post by Rabbi Abby Phelps of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

Public discourse today is in a sorry state. I am by no means the first to make this observation, but I am profoundly disturbed by it. It has become nearly impossible for people with differing viewpoints to discuss contentious, complex issues without resorting to shouting and sloganeering, and we all suffer as a consequence. Perhaps no current issue brings out this problem more than the debate over reproductive health and decision-making. Fortunately, if we are willing to listen, Judaism has a great deal of wisdom to offer on these matters.

We have many Jewish values to draw upon in supporting reproductive choice, in everything from contraception to sex education to abortion. One is shalom bayit, peace in the home, a principle central to how Judaism views family life (see also Coffee Shop Rabbi's discussion of the complexity of this term). Comprehensive sex education can help to foster healthy, loving relationships, and contraception is often an important part of maintaining harmony in a relationship. Both contraception and sex education are also key elements of self care, the importance of which Judaism recognizes in the principle of shmirat haguf, or protecting the body, the mandate to look after one’s body and health.

Another Jewish value relevant to reproductive health and choice is kavod habriyot, respect for individual dignity. A key part of according dignity to individuals is, I would argue, allowing them to choose how best to care for their own bodies, minds, and souls, including in reproductive matters. Furthermore, we ought to consider the value of rachamim, or compassion. When we approach others, and ourselves, we are encouraged to begin from a place of compassion, giving great weight to the emotional and spiritual needs of the person before us (see e.g. Pirkei Avot 1:6, 15).

Above all, there is the value of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, perhaps Judaism’s paramount value. Judaism teaches that anyone who saves a nefesh, a living soul, is viewed as having saved an entire world (BT Sanhedrin 37a). Accordingly, the Talmud explicitly endorses using contraception in the interest of pikuach nefesh in some cases (see BT Yevamot 12b). A fetus, however, is widely understood to not yet count as a nefesh: while there is much dispute about the exact status of a fetus, nearly all Jewish sources agree that it is a lesser form of life than a person who has fully emerged from the womb. This much is clear from the biblical discussion of the case where a pregnant woman is collaterally injured in a struggle between two men, and consequently miscarries: the man who caused the injury is liable to pay a fine, but is not liable for capital punishment, as he would be in a case of murder (Exodus 21:22–23). The Mishnah further states that in cases where a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, it is not merely permissible, but actually mandatory to destroy the fetus in order to protect her (Ohalot 7:6). What exactly constitutes a danger to the mother is a matter of dispute: some argue that her physical life must be at risk, but many others, myself included, contend that danger to the mother legitimately extends to her mental, emotional, and even financial well-being.

Of course, there are other, competing interpretations and values that I could bring to bear in this discussion: for example, the biblical commandment to p’ru u’r’vu, to be fruitful and multiply, which some Jews understand as standing in opposition to contraception. There is also a question of framing: I recognize that for some Jews, none of the arguments I have made will be persuasive because they are couched in terms of values, rather than halachah. Those who see halachah as a continuously unfolding discourse, rather than a fixed set of rules, would likely disagree, as would those who, as I do, see halachah as being a vital expression of Jewish thought but not an ultimate authority. (For persectives on the meaning of halachah see: as defined by Chabad and by MyJewishLearning)

The beauty of Judaism is that it makes room for all of these positions and more. At the heart of Jewish thought is a deep respect for dialogue, debate and preserving and listening to diverse opinions. It is this respect for disagreement and difference that I find so sorely lacking in today’s discussions of reproductive health and choice, and which I fervently hope we can restore. For my part, I will continue to stand firmly in support of reproductive choice, while also recognizing that these are morally complex and emotionally provocative issues, and that it behooves us to treat them with the delicacy and nuance that they deserve.