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An article donated by Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Abortion: Islamic and Jewish
views on when a human soul
enters the human fetus:

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Webmaster's note:

Elsewhere on this web site, I have written articles discussing topics similar to the ones in this essay. Most refer to a zygote (a just fertilized ovum) as a form of life, because she or he exhibits all of the properties that scientists say are necessary for life to exist. Since she or he contains human DNA, then they are a form of human life. They also refer to a newborn as both a human life and a human person. I agree with Rabbi Maller that the key criterion in the conflicts over abortion access is the point at which personhood is attained.

There are many conflicting beliefs about when this happens, covering the full range from conception to birth. My personal belief is that this happens when the brain of the fetus develops consciousness and first becomes aware of its environment to some degree. This happens at about 24 weeks gestation. Rabbi Maller believes that it happens when a human soul enters the fetus at about 17 weeks gestation. Unfortunately, there is little dialogue on this topic. If more dialogue occurred, significant movement towards a consensus on abortion access might occur.

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I am a Rabbi who frequently writes articles about the close connections between Judaism and Islam for Islamic web sites as well as for Jewish web sites; (31 articles previously published by Islamic web sites are in my book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’). 1

The following article is slightly expanded from articles that appeared on the Islamicity web site on 2019-MAY-22; and on The Times of Israel on 2019-MAY-23.

All the continuing political disputes over abortion in the USA and other countries ignore the fundamental religious issue: when does the embryo or fetus in the womb of a woman’s body become a human person? At conception it is a living physical body, but when does this soul become a spiritual human being?

All mammals begin life as an embryo and later are called a fetus. What makes the embryo/fetus in the womb of a woman’s body into a human person from a religious point of view is the entrance into the embryo/fetus of a spiritual human soul. This is called "ensoulment."

According to Muslim legal scholars, who are the only ones who have a fairly clear scriptural bases for their view, the soul (ruh) enters the fetus/embryo at around 120 days (which is about 4 months or 17 weeks) after conception.

There is no clear statement of when ensoulment occurs in the Hebrew Bible, in the Gospels, or in the ancient scriptures of any of the Indian religions. Only the Qur’an offers an answer.

Muslim legal scholars based the time of ensoulment on a Qur’anic verse (23:12-14) that states:

“And verily We created mankind from a quintessence (of clay). Then We placed him in a place of rest (the womb), firmly fixed (into the uterine lining). Then We made the sperm/egg into a clot of congealed blood. Then of that clot We made a (embryo) lump. Then We made out of that embryo/lump bones and clothed the bones with flesh. Then (finally) We developed out of it another creature (by breathing a human soul into it). So blessed be Allah, the most marvelous Creator”.

There is also a Hadith (a record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) that says:

“Sayyiduna Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud narrated that the Messenger of Allah said:

'Each one of you is constituted in the womb of the mother for forty days, and then he becomes a clot of thick blood for a similar period, and then a piece of flesh for a similar period. Then Allah sends an angel who is ordered to write four things. He is ordered to write down his (each person’s) deeds, his livelihood, his (date of) death, and whether he will be blessed or wretched (in religion). Then the soul is breathed into him ...' (Sahih al-Bukhari no: 3036)."

The second part of the Hadith teaches us that what makes a human soul different from an animal soul is that: God keeps records of how individual humans behave; humans have very many ways to earn their livelihood, they know in advance that they will die although only God knows exactly when, and whether he or she will end up in the garden or the fire.

Thus, when the age of a fetus reaches about 120 days (about 4 months or 17 weeks), it no longer remains a human living object; rather, it becomes a living human being. At this point, all organ differentiation is almost completed and the child has acquired the shape of a human body.

More importantly, now that the soul has entered the body, the fetus is truly a human person; and may not be killed unless it becomes a danger to the mother. In the case of premature births that survive; the soul enters just prior to birth.The rabbis in the Talmud all agree that ensoulment does not begin at conception. The question of the fetus’s human vitality is addressed in two places in the Talmud: in Yevamot 69, 2 a fetus in the first forty days of pregnancy is likened to water, “עד ארבעים יום מיא בעלמא”; in Nida 8, 2 the fetus is recognized as a human soul from the second trimester. 13 weeks into the pregnancy.

The Torah (Exodus 21:22-23) states that if two men are fighting and injure a pregnant woman, causing her to miscarry, and if no other harm is done, the person who caused the damage must pay compensatory damages.

The rabbinic interpretation is that if the only harm to the woman is the loss of her fetus, it is treated as a civil tort, and not a criminal case. So abortion is not a prohibited crime, but it is damaging and thus discouraged.

In the Middle Ages, Roman Catholic theologians taught that ensoulment occurred about 2 to 3 months after conception, perhaps influenced by superior Muslim medical knowledge at that time during the Christian dark ages.

Because of the much higher rate of miscarriages in the past, one favorite sign of ensoulment was "quickening" when the mother first detected ongoing movement from the embryo. Since that varies greatly from mother to mother, it is not a good standard for law making. The first trimester (13 weeks) seems to be a good bases for making legal decisions.

According to a 2017 Pew survey, 83% of American Jews believe that abortion should be legal in most cases. 2 All the non-orthodox Jewish movements support reproductive rights, and even ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders have resisted anti-abortion measures that do not allow religious exceptions.

This broad support reveals the Jewish commitment to the separation of religion and state in the U.S., and a reluctance to legislatively force the same religious moral concepts on everyone when there is so much room for honest and sincere debate.

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About the author:

Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 300 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' 1 and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari." 3

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. book cover Rabbi Allen Maller, "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi's Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism," Hadassa Word Press (2017) Paperback format. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  2. David Masci, "American religious groups vary widely in their views of abortion," Pew Research, 2018-JAN-22, at: https://www.pewresearch.org/
  3. book cover Rabbi Allen Maller, "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari," Hadassa Word Press (2018-JUL) Paperback format. Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store


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Original posting: 2019-MAY-26
Author: Rabbi Allen S. Maller
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