Rabbis back Clintons veto of late-term abortion ban

WASHINGTON — More than 700 rabbis are urging U.S. Senators to sustain President Clinton's veto of the so-called partial-birth abortion ban.

The rabbis, representing all streams of Judaism, sent a letter last week to lawmakers expressing opposition to efforts to outlaw the late-term procedure to end pregnancy, calling it a deeply personal and moral issue "best left to religious communities, not politicians."

The letter, drafted by the National Council of Jewish Women, comes as the Senate prepares a vote to override the president's veto before adjourning.

Congress passed a ban on partial-birth abortion procedures last year, but Clinton vetoed it because he said it did not go far enough to protect a woman's health. The bill would make it illegal for doctors to perform the procedure, unless the mother's life was in danger.

The House of Representatives passed the legislation by the necessary two-thirds margin needed to override the president's veto, but the Senate came up three votes short, passing it 64 to 36.

The rabbis' appeal was prompted in part by a letter sent earlier this year to senators that was signed by some 70 rabbis from across the country. That letter urged lawmakers to override Clinton's veto, stating that Jewish law prohibits the procedure because "once the head of the baby emerges, or the majority of the baby's body emerges, the child is considered a person equal to the mother and cannot be aborted, even to save the mother's life."

Rabbi Seymour Essrog, president of the conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly, took issue with that reading, saying, "We have widely differing religious traditions on this."

Indeed, in the new letter, the more than 700 rabbis, many of whom hold conflicting views, recognize that Judaism "has different interpretations of these laws and teachings, and we respect and welcome debate on these issues.

"However, this debate should remain among those who practice our faith, not on the floor of Congress."

The rabbis also said they were concerned about what they called "vague, non-medical language" in the bill. They said the language makes it "very difficult for anyone, whether clergy or physician, to be certain about which medical procedures would be banned" and makes it "difficult to engage in a theological debate on this matter."

One signatory to the letter, Rabbi Donald Weber of Morganville, N.J., said the traumatic experience he and his wife went through many years ago prompted him to speak out.

When his wife, who is also a rabbi, was 4 1/2 months pregnant, they learned that their child had no brain and was developing with its internal organs outside the body.

"My wife's health was not technically in danger," but according to the proposed ban, "my wife would have been required to go to the full term, knowing that the baby inside her would die the moment it was born."

He added, "It took us nearly a year to recover physically and have the courage to try again. We now have three beautiful boys. If we had had to go through the rest of that pregnancy, I don't know if we would have ever had the courage to try again."