What is Life before Birth?
This is the video of the discussion on Dec 15.
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 descendants will all have blond hair and blue eyes and be six-feet tall?
Abortion has come to the fore as an issue again, as state legislatures weigh in on the topic of late term abortion.Now Texas has opened the possibility of civil suits by angered citizens, Mississippi is seeking to overturn Roe v Wade and the SCOTUS is about to opine on this topic. Maybe this is the ” Bloody Kansas” of our century that could split us up.
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 seems , is very simply, a matter of a woman’s choice.
This is not just a matter of religious faith:
On race- abortion was part of a plank by progressives at start of 20th century- based on the “ science” of their day.
Restrict the growth of what they considered inferior people= such as blacks, Jews, Italians. It went hand in hand with the original IQ tests, which were designed to prove the mental inferiority of the new immigrants coming to this country. Went together with eugenics, that we could breed a better kind of humanity. Birth control, enforced sterilization of undesirables- Even in recent years, noted economists have paired the decline in crime since the late 20th century with the increase in access of abortion. Fewer births among the poor-fewer teenagers and young adults on the streets who get in trouble.
We can go a step further:
[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.
Note that these are secular, not religious perspectives.
II. For other ancient perspectives
Aristotle believed a fetus in early gestation has the
"soul of a vegetable, then of an animal, and only later became "animated" with a human soul by "ensoulment". For him, ensoulment occurred 40 days after conception for male fetuses and 90 days after conception for female fetuses [Aristotle, like other Greeks, had no sympathy for women!], the stage at which, it was held, movement is first felt within the womb and pregnancy was certain.
[But note for geometry students: -if you like your right angle hypotenuse, you like Pythagoras.]
Pythagoreans also considered ensoulment to occur at conception
. 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.
Jewish concern for the newborn was abhorrent to the Romans. Thus, 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.)
The Covenant with Noah-which is considered binding on all, Jew and gentile-Noachide laws-
שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃
sheds the blood of man,
By man shall his blood be shed;
For in His image
Did God make man.
Is that what the text means?” Dam HaAdam , baadam damo yishafech.”In other words, there is a comma break between the two forms of Adam, so to say,as the translation- or,there is no comma until after the 2nd “ Adam”, so thatit measn the blood of the man inside the man.”In other words, the fetus.as per R Ishmael-(Sanhedrin 57b) from the wording of Genesis 9:6.
Is it clear? Or not?
B What other guide do we have? A hypothetical “ If then” in the Torah.
Our key text is from Exodus, the portion of Mishpatim, Chapter 21, in the context of assault and battery and accidental and intentional murder. It is the context of the famous “ eye for eye.”
וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃
וְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ׃
But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life,
עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן יָ֚ד תַּ֣חַת יָ֔ד רֶ֖גֶל תַּ֥חַת רָֽגֶל׃
eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
כְּוִיָּה֙ תַּ֣חַת כְּוִיָּ֔ה פֶּ֖צַע תַּ֣חַת פָּ֑צַע חַבּוּרָ֕ה תַּ֖חַת חַבּוּרָֽה׃ (ס)
burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Mishpatim ( Exodus 21:22)
וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן
“ her children have gone out”- a clear term for miscarriage.
“but there is no “ason”, tragedy. In other words, she does not die as a result of the strike. Then there is only a compensation, set by the court.
However, if there is “ ason”, a tragedy, then there is penalty depending on the degree of injury to the mother, hence, the lex taliones to give guide lines on compensation for physical injury-nefesh tachat nefesh- life for life- of the mother. eye for eye, tooth for tooth.
הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד, מְחַתְּכִין אֶת הַוָּלָד בְּמֵעֶיהָ וּמוֹצִיאִין אוֹתוֹ אֵבָרִים אֵבָרִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחַיֶּיהָ קוֹדְמִין לְחַיָּיו. יָצָא רֻבּוֹ, אֵין נוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, שֶׁאֵין דּוֹחִין נֶפֶשׁ מִפְּנֵי נָפֶשׁ:
If a woman is in hard travail, one cuts up the offspring in her womb and brings it forth member by member, because her life comes before the life of her foetus.
But if the greater part has proceeded forth, one may not set aside one person for the sake of saving another.
The classic Catholic teaching was and is, that the mother has already gained life, eternal, through her faith, but the infant must be saved in order for that soul to gain eternal life. We want life in this world, the Catholic, in the next.
For that reason, in the past, at catholic hospitals, the infants life took precedent over the mother’s life. A Jewish woman would not want to have complications at birth in a Catholic country.
D. 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.
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 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”. There is a very clear dictum that , in the case of “ rodef”, one must kill the hunter to save the hunted. Other rabbis used it to indicate “ rodef min hashamayim” as, even though Heaven itself is pursuing the mother, as if to kill her, we must perform an abortion.
E However- although abortion is not murder, so not neither mother nor abortion provider are liable for the death penalty, does that make it permitted under other circumstances?
Abortion at will or personal choice?
Can we say “ It’s my body and I can do as I see fit?” This is a faulty premise and Justice Ginsburg saw the flaw in the Roe v Wade decision based on an implicit right to privacy. She wanted the case decided on the basis of equal opportunity, on the basis that the risk involved falls on the women, not on the man. But in itself , it is a faulty premise. not just on abortion, but on every aspect of human life- our existence as social beings, not lone wolves, means that society has the moral authority to make demands of our bodies-both of males and females. Males are expected, in time of a major war, as World War II, to offer their bodies for the greater good.
Perhaps instead there needs to be a greater general principal between the extreme 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. We are we get closer and closer to full gestation, the fetus shows more and more signs of viability outside of the womb. It further clouds the issue.
As Jews, we recognize that we must confront moral responsibility from both ends of the equation, never form an abstract absolute. It used to be accepted that, in Bill Clinton’s words: Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.
That was 30 years ago. Today, the lines have been hardened.
For the democrats, the word “ rare” is forbidden, and for Republicans, the word “legal” is forbidden.
Both women and infants are caught up in our cultural wars.
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.