Life before Birth Tazria
Some years ago, I had to sit down with our son to help him review for a test in a high school class on contemporary Jewish issues. The first word he had to define was "bioethics", and he had trouble breaking the word down into its components. Ethics, he knew, was the theory of right and wrong behavior, but the bi-part confused him.
He was, after all, an excellent math student, and knew that ,in math, the prefix "bi" always means two. I straightened him out--this is not a discussion of math, but a discussion of life. The prefix is not bi, but bio, as in biology, that is life. We are talking about what is right and wrong in regards to life itself.
The right and wrong of life itself is fast becoming the crucial moral and legal issue of our society. When does life itself begin, and when does it end? May I prevent a life; may I hasten its end? May I tamper with the way in which we begin life? Can I change my genes, so that my descendents will all have blond hair and blue eyes and be six-feet tall?
Surely a whole list of names come to our mind with these thoughts: Thalidomide babies, to Terry Schiavo, to Dr. Kevorkian, names and cases that were undreamed of a century ago.
Can we find guidance in Jewish sources, sources going back two, three thousand years, for issues that face people today, in our Jewish 58th century, the gentile' s 21st century?
There is a basic premise of classic Jewish thinking, Hafoch bah ve hafoch ba--Examine the Torah over and over, for all is in it.
This weeks Torah portion begins with the discussion of birth" Ishah, ki tazria,--A woman at childbirth, who delivers a son, shall bring such and such an offering, shall be impure for such and such a time." We deal here, with the question of the start of life, and based on the words "ishah ki tazria", according to the Talmud, we can choose the sex of the child in advance.
( The secret, according to the ancient Sages, was that the husband must see to it that his wife is satisfied in bed first. It is considered to actually be effective in increasing the likelihood of a boy being born if the father was anxious to host a bris. The converse could be said as well, then; if the mother wanted to have a baby girl like herself, then she would need to be considerate of her husband first!)
Let us then, look at this question, of birth, of the beginning of life itself. It is question that is constantly bounced around ever since the famous ( or infamous, depending on which side of the argument you may be on) Roe vs Wade case--does life begin at conception--or at a certain point in the growth of an embryo-or at birth itself? Is a women who determines that she is incapable of going through with a birth to be considered a murderer, or is a women the sole proprietor of herself and of any part of her body?
Clearly , the most vocal answers, the ones that get in the press, are either the complete “pro-life”anti-abortionists, for whom all abortion, no matter the reason, is murder, or the very abstract “pro-choice” for whom it is , very simply, a matter of a woman’s choice.
For the Catholic Church, as for many evangelical Protestant groups, abortion is a sin, and to many, murder.
In classic Christian doctrine, unique to the Christian fathers, and borrowed from Greek mystic movements, the moment the infant is conceived, the soul, the eternal, individual soul, enters the egg, and from that moment on, we have a full fledge human being, with all rights and safeguards. It is backed up, by a translation of a verse in the portion of Mishpatim ( Exodus 21:22) , in the Greek text( Septuagint) but not in ours, which we see to be a mistake and error in translation.
The Torah speaks only of a miscarriage, caused in a fight. If the fetus is killed, the aggressor pays only a penalty. He has not committed murder, nor has he caused an accidental death. By implication, in Jewish law, the fetus is not yet a living independent human being.
In later Jewish law, also, in the Mishnah and the Talmud, the embryo is not yet a living entity. The fetus has no legal rights; it can not inherit property, nor can any purchase be made in its name, for one can make no legal transactions on behalf of someone who does not yet exist. In Jewish law, the fetus is ubar yerech emo--the fetus is a part of the mother, just as her thigh is, or any other organ, stomach, heart, bones.
The Talmud explicitly calls for abortion, up to the moment of birth, for the sake of the mother's life, because clearly, as Rashi explains, before physical birth, it is not considered alive. Only after birth is it alive." Clearly, terminating a pregnancy is not in and of itself an act of murder.
From this perspective, Rabbis actually required abortion in the case of physical danger to the mother, or even mental danger to the mother even up to the moment of birth. The Rabbis actually considered the fetus to be the equivalent of a “ rodef”, a very harsh term, a word used to indicate one intent upon killing another—the fetus, in this case is the “hunter”. Other rabbis used it to indicate “ rodef” as, even though Heaven itself is pursuing the mother, as if to kill her, we must perform an abortion. There are those Rabbis who justified fear of pain, or mental anguish or shame as legitimate grounds for abortion in earlier stages. In all cases, the operative concept is that the active( mother) takes precedent over the potential ( fetus). However, the moment, any part of the fetus emerges, whether naturally or by Caesarian, it is at that moment, considered a full human being who must now be brought to full birth.
It would seem, from this, that the Catholic and Jewish positions are worlds apart. Yet even here, there may be grounds for a meeting place. The new Pope, Francis, while still declaring abortion ‘horrific”, has suggested that the opposition to abortion should not be seen as the Church’s “obsession”.
Even the Christian church in history did not define abortion as murder in all cases. Medieval Church codes for example, accepted abortion before the 40th day of pregnancy. It was not until 1869 that the Catholic Church officially defined the moment of conception as the moment of the beginning of human life.
Does this mean then that we stand eagerly with NOW and NARAL on this?
Perhaps instead there needs to be a greater general principal between the ends.
Abortion is not murder, nor is the unborn fetus yet a full human being, yet on the other hand we also are concerned, lest we lose our sensitivity to the potential of life in each pregnancy.
Jews were very well known in antiquity for an exceptional trait. You well know the Spartan practice of abandoning deformed babies to the wolves. Only fully healthy children were allowed to be raised to serve as warriors. Here is the law as it was recorded in The Twelve Tables of Roman Law: "Deformed infants shall be killed" (De Legibus 3.8). It was clear in Roman law that any baby less than fully desirable could be disposed of freely , and that applied, very often to baby girls who could be exposed to the beasts. Roman law gave the father “ius paterfamilias”, absolute power of authority over life and death of any of his children . The Roman historian, Tacitus condemned Jews for their opposition to infanticide; it was another proof of the "sinister and revolting practices" of the Jews.( Histories 5.5.)
As Jews, we recognize that we must confront moral responsibility from both ends of the equation, never form an abstract absolute.
When we close down clinics and muzzle doctors do we really save lives, or create greater anguish. Since the woman, in pregnancy, risks her health and life in the process of birth, we cannot mandate birth by force any more than we can force someone to donate an organ, even to save another's life.
On the other hand, where possible, we need to encourage the birth, and again, the key word is “where possible” because ultimately, the final decision rests with the woman carrying the child. Can we help the woman raise the child, can we support her to be a responsible mother, can we find the father, encourage him to be a responsible father? Can we encourage and help the mother give the child up for adoption to the many parents who are incapable of adopting? What are the tools that we can apply, whether through government agencies, or through community and faith based organizations, to see to it that every child born is wanted and loved and cared for. .
In our tradition, every child born is a special event. May we make every effort possible, so that, when life begins, at birth, that life is a blessing, a joy, and a comfort for all. Amen.