When does human personhood begin?
Belief system 4: Jewish beliefs
Within Christianity, Judaism, Humanism and other religions and
ethical systems, the morality of abortion is grounded in the precise belief of
the nature of the fetus. There is a general consensus in North America that when
the fetus becomes a human person, then abortions should be severely limited.
Most would confine abortions at that stage to situations that threaten the life
of the pregnant woman; a very few would eliminate access to abortions totally.
The problem that generates so much controversy is that no consensus exists in
society over the point, between conception and birth, when personhood begins.
Halacha (Jewish law) does define when a fetus becomes a nefesh
"...a baby...becomes a full-fledged human being when the head
emerges from the womb. Before then, the fetus is considered a 'partial
life.' " 5
In the case of a "feet-first" delivery, it happens when most of the
fetal body is outside the mother's body.
Jewish beliefs and practice not neatly match either the "pro-life"
nor the "pro-choice" points of view. The general principles of
modern-day Judaism are that:
The fetus has great value because it is potentially a human
life. It gains "full human status at birth only." 2
Abortions are not permitted on the grounds of genetic
imperfections of the fetus.
Abortions are permitted to save the mother's life or health.
With the exception of some Orthodox authorities, Judaism supports abortion access for women.
case must be decided individually by a rabbi well-versed in Jewish law." 5
Historical Christianity has considered "ensoulment,"
the point at which the soul enters the body) as the time when abortions should
normally be prohibited. Belief about the timing of this event has varied. Some believe it happens during the process of conception. Others believe it happens 90 days after conception, or later.
There has been no consensus among historical Jewish sources about when
ensoulment happens. It is regarded as "one of the 'secrets of God' that
will be revealed only when the Messiah comes." 1
Abortion-related passages in the Hebrew Scriptures &
The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 69b states that:
embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day [after conception]."
it is considered subhuman until it is born.
"Rashi, the great 12th century commentator on the Bible
and Talmud, states clearly of the fetus 'lav nefesh hu--it is not a person.'
Talmud contains the expression 'ubar yerech imo--the fetus is as the thigh of
its mother,' i.e., the fetus is deemed to be part and parcel of the pregnant
woman's body." 1
This belief is grounded in Exodus
21:22. That biblical passage outlines the Mosaic law in a case where
a man is responsible for causing a woman's miscarriage, which kills the
fetus If the woman survives, then the perpetrator has to pay a fine to the
woman's husband. If the woman dies, then the perpetrator is also killed. This
indicates that the fetus has value, but does not have the status of a person.
There are two additional passages in the Talmud which shed some
light on the Jewish belief about abortion. They imply that the fetus is
considered part of the mother, and not a separate entity:
One section states that if a man purchases a cow that is
found to be pregnant, then he is the owner both of the cow and the
Another section states that if a pregnant woman converts to
Judaism, that her conversion applies also to her fetus.
When an abortion is needed to save the life of the mother:
A passage from the Mishna quotes a Jewish legal text from the second century CE.
It describes the situation in which a woman's life is endangered during
childbirth. A D&X procedure (often called Partial
Birth Abortion in recent years) might be used under these conditions today.
However, this technique was unknown in ancient times. The legal text states that
the fetus must be dismembered and removed limb by limb. However, if "the
greater part" of the fetus had already been delivered, then the fetus
could not be killed. This is based on the belief that the fetus only becomes a
person after most of its body emerges from the birth canal.
has been reached, it may be necessary to:
"sacrifice a potential life in
order to save a fully existent human life, i.e. the pregnant woman in labor." 1
After the forehead emerges from the birth canal, the fetus
is regarded as a person. Neither the baby nor the mother can be killed to save
the life of the other.
A second consideration is the principle of self-defense. Some Jewish
authorities have asserted that if the fetus placed its mother's life at risk,
then the mother should be permitted to kill the fetus to save herself, even if
the "greater portion [of its body] had already emerged" from
the birth canal.
Some Jewish authorities have ruled in specific cases:
One case involved a woman who becomes pregnant while nursing a child. Her
milk supply would dry up. If the child is allergic to all other forms of
nutrition except for its mother's milk, then it would starve. An abortion
would be permitted in this case. An abortion of the fetus, a potential
person, would be justified to save the life of the child, an actual person.
An abortion would be permissible if the woman was suicidal because of her
Jewish authorities differed in a case where a continued pregnancy would
leave the mother permanently deaf. She obtained permission for an abortion
from the Chief Rabbi of Israel.
Many Jewish authorities permit abortion in the case of a pregnancy
resulting from a rape, if needed in order save her great mental anguish.
Most authorities do not permit abortion in the event that the fetus is
genetically defective or will probably pick up a disease from its mother.
The rationale is that even though the child will be malformed, disabled, or
diseased, it would still be formed in the image of the creator. Rabbi
Eliezar Waldenberg is one authority who believes otherwise. He"
first trimester abortion of a fetus which would be born with a deformity
that would cause it to suffer, and termination of a fetus with a lethal
fetal defect such as Tay Sachs up to the end of the second trimester of
An abortion is sometimes permitted if the woman suffers great emotional
pain about the birth of a child who will experience health problems.
Abortions are not permitted for economic reasons, to avoid career
inconveniences, or because the woman is unmarried.
In a very unusual case, a woman in New Jersey was pregnant with a
hydroencephalic fetus. Its large head prevented a conventional delivery. The
physician recommended a Caesarian section. But the woman asked for a D&X
procedure on the grounds that the fetus' life was doomed anyway; it would only live for a very short interval. Also, a C
section would weaken her uterus for her next pregnancy. Her rabbinic
authorities agreed with her wishes. 4
Political aspects of abortion access:
Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are formally opposed to
government regulation of abortion. They feel that the decision should rest with
the woman, her husband, doctor and clergyperson. Some Orthodox authorities agree
with this stance.
All recognize that the decision to have an abortion is a difficult one, and
is not to be undertaken without considerable thought.
Related essays on this web site:
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
R.A. Zwerom & R.J. Shapiro, "Religion and choice: Judaism and
abortion," at: http://www.rcrc.org/
- Citation removed at the request of the article's author
Daniel Eisenberg, "Abortion and Halacha," JSOURCE, at: http://www.us-israel.org/
M.Z. Warhman, "Partial birth abortion", JSOURCE, at: http://www.us-israel.org/
"Ask the Rabbi: Abortion - Yes or No," at: http://www.aish.com/
Copyright © 2000 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-AUG-16
Latest update: 2015-OCT-14
Author: B.A. Robinson