This ad appeared in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication's previous name) in 1976.
This ad appeared in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication's previous name) in 1976.

What rabbis said about abortion in our paper in 1975

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In February 1975, this newspaper — then known as the San Francisco Jewish Bulletin — waded into a debate. The debate concerned an issue that touched on Jewish law, public opinion and the moral values of the time.

Two years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark decision Roe v. Wade to allow women greater access to abortions. Although legally decided, Roe was still fresh — and controversial.

“The two-year-old Supreme Court decision liberalizing abortion laws in this country only served to agitate the controversy and make both pro and antiabortionist factions more vociferous in their battle against each other,” said an article on page one of the paper under the headline “The Abortion Issue.”

So what do you do when you have a question about ethics? You ask a rabbi. Or, rather, three rabbis, starting with Rabbi Jacob Traub, the spiritual leader of Orthodox synagogue Adath Israel in San Francisco. Traub entered the debate with a fairly cutting rebuke.

Rabbi Jacob Traub
Rabbi Jacob Traub

“At the very outset it is important to point out that halachah cannot be decided in the pages of a newspaper,” he said. “And the question of abortion is very definitely of a halachic nature.”

He then issued a distinct rebuttal to more liberal Jewish opinion: “For too long it has been facile to claim that Judaism looks benignly at abortion; that the fetus is a non-person in Jewish law; or that it is up to the whims of the parents whether to have the child or not,” he said.

Taking apart the issue, he first addressed the idea that abortion is permissible because mourning is not mandated for a newborn who dies in the first 30 days of life. Traub said that wasn’t a good parallel; by Jewish law, even if you don’t mourn an early death, you still can’t up and kill a baby that’s fewer than 30 days old.

He then turns his attention to the commentary at the heart of the matter: Mishnah Oholot 7:6, which says, “If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and brings it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child].”

“It is on this hook that the pro-abortionists hang their arguments,” he stated.

Traub said this commentary in fact limits abortion only to what he called “self-defense,” a strict interpretation of preserving the mother’s life, just as if she were about to be murdered. He thought this could include mental health risks that would lead to death but said the issue should be decided on a case-by-case basis by a rabbi. That was as far as he would go.

“Those who wish to espouse a humanist view are of course free to do so, but should not mask that view by attempting to represent it as the view of halachah or traditional thought,” he said. “To do so is intellectually dishonest, and when a totally liberal approach is presented as ‘the Jewish view of abortion’ it does a disservice to those who honestly search for a true evaluation.”

It should be noted that Traub didn’t comment on the legal issues laid out in the Supreme Court decision.

Rabbi Jack Frankel
Rabbi Jack Frankel

Representing the Conservative view in the following week’s paper, Jack Frankel, rabbi of the city’s Congregation Ner Tamid (also founding rabbi of Congregation Anshei Ha’sefer), took a different tack.

“The Supreme Court’s decision about abortion has much in common with Jewish law and informed Jewish opinion,” he said.

He thought two points raised in the opinion of the Court meshed well with Jewish law and tradition. The first was safety of the mother, as referred to in Mishnah Oholot 7:6, while the second was the concept that “person” did not refer to an unborn child. This was something that set Jews apart from Christians, he said.

Justice Harry Blackmun’s “opinion rejects the [Catholic] Church’s position that ensoulment takes place at conception and that abortion is akin to homicide,” Frankel explained.

While supporting the Supreme Court decision, Frankel laid down broad guidelines for when abortion should be allowed, principles he summed up as “therapeutic abortion, liberally interpreted.”

“In the earlier stages, therapeutic abortions are allowed whenever there’s any threat to the mother’s health, directly or indirectly, physically or psychologically,” he said. That would mean aborting “Thalidomide babies, cases of rape and the like” should be allowed, he added, but abortions should not be allowed if “prompted merely by the mother’s desire not to have another child.”

“Giving ‘carte blanche’ to all abortions would spell moral defeatism that buys time at the sacrifice of moral values,” he said.

Rabbi Martin Weiner
Rabbi Martin Weiner

But in part three of the 1975 debate, Reform Rabbi Martin Weiner of Congregation Sherith Israel moved past the legalistic approach for an argument tempered with a plea for empathy.

“As rabbis, my colleagues and I are often faced with counseling families anguishing in this struggle: the young husband and wife who face years of agony caring for a physically or mentally defective child; the young girl whose one indiscretion could leave incredible emotional scars whether she keeps the child or gives it up for adoption; even the married couple who really are physically or emotionally unprepared to accept another child,” he wrote.

Additionally, according to Weiner, respect for life could be reconciled with the Reform rabbinical position of supporting “abortion on demand.” As the fetus is not a nefesh (a being with a soul, or the breath of life), “it is part of its mother, and, just as a person may sacrifice a limb to be cured of a worse sickness, so may the fetus be destroyed for the mother’s benefit.”

Even then, he said, abortion was not something to be taken lightly. Nor was it something that could be regulated by medieval commentary reflecting a world no longer relevant for Jews of the day.

“Certainly we, as Jews, have always held life to be sacred, yet on the question of abortion we often come face-to-face with an awesome, frequently tragic, conflict of values,” he wrote. “Which is the greater tragedy? The aborting of ‘prospective life’ or the real possibility of destroying the physical and emotional lives of existing human beings.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.