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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter 2022

Abortion

Rachel Mikva
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EnglischEnglish

The contemporary debate about abortion is marked by polarization and moral certainty, often invoking religion to ascribe authority to a particular position. The historical record of Jewish and Christian teachings on the subject, however, is dialectical, dynamic, and multivocal. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun acknowledged the broad range of religious perspectives in drafting the 7-2 majority opinion in Roe v. Wade (1973, read here). Rejecting Texas’ claim that an embryo has human rights from the moment of conception and requires protection by the State, the Court declined to speculate on the question of when life begins, since “those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus.”   

Blackmun noted predominant Stoic and Jewish opinions that life begins at birth, and Protestants who organized to advocate that abortion is a matter of conscience for the individual and her family. He reviewed common law limits at quickening (when women can feel movement in the womb), medical considerations of viability, Aristotelian theories of mediate animation (believing that a male embryo has a vegetative status for 40 days after conception, and a female embryo for 80-90 days), and varying notions of ensoulment in the Roman Catholic Church—highlighting the variability of thinking on the issue. 

This article presents diverse Jewish and Christian ideas about abortion from scriptural texts to the modern era. Even though there are Jews and Christians in both the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps today, the religious teachings that inform their perspectives are distinct. Textual interpretation, theology, politics, and history all shape how the communities relate to each other and to the state regarding abortion. 

One critical difference in Jewish and Christian attitudes traces back to translation of a single word in the Hebrew Bible. In the only explicit reference to legal consequences when a pregnancy is disrupted—in this case a miscarriage—the text makes a distinction between the status of the fetus and the mother:

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage (ason) ensues, the one responsible shall be punished when the woman’s husband exacts it, paying a fine based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth […]. (Ex 21:22-25)

Death of the fetus is not considered murder, or it could not be reconciled with a fine. Even manslaughter would require that the assailant flee to a city of refuge. The familiar trope of life for life applies only if the woman is otherwise harmed. Targum Onkolos, an early Aramaic translation, makes it more explicit—rendering “no other damage ensues” as “the woman does not die.”  

The Vulgate matches the Targum here, but the Septuagint (the Greek translation that became influential in early Christianity), translates the Hebrew word ason (damage) as “form” (exeikonismenon, literally “made from the image”). The change yields a very different understanding: if the fetus is unformed when the woman miscarries, the penalty is only a fine; if it is formed, the law of talion applies. The central question becomes the nature of the fetus, not the welfare of the woman. Although both the Hebrew and Greek texts were “Jewish” in origin, these Judean (Hebrew) versus Alexandrian (Greek) perspectives came to shape Jewish versus Christian approaches to questions of abortion—distinctions that impact discourse and Jewish-Christian relations today.  

Philosophical perspectives on fetal development may have influenced the Septuagint translation. Aristotle had maintained that a male embryo was formed as a human being after forty days of gestation and a female embryo after eighty to ninety days (History of Animals VII:3, Politics VII:16). Spurred by such theories and ongoing debates about the nature of the soul in Greco-Roman contexts, Christian commentary frequently addressed questions of fetal development and ensoulment.   

There was not consensus; even the work of a single author presents mixed messages. Contemporary Christian pro-life activists like to cite Tertullian (3rd cent.) to demonstrate early religious objections to abortion, but his training as a rhetorician prompted him to choose the best argument without concern for consistency among his writings. In challenging Platonist claims that the soul enters the body at its first breath, he wrote that body and soul are conceived simultaneously (De Anima 26-27). Ten chapters later, he adopted the Septuagint’s concept of gradual formation and suggested that the unborn child takes on the image of God after seven months (De Anima 37). In arguing against Marcionite conceptions of Christ, he went further to emphasize the mystery of divine self-humiliation as unanimated flesh in the womb (Marc 4.21). Tertullian even acknowledged the need to abort during an obstructed birth that could kill woman and child, although he viewed it as a necessary evil  (De Anima 25).  

In the 5th cent., Jerome stated that “seeds are gradually formed in wombs and for so long a time murder is not considered until mixed up elements take up their appearances and limbs” (Epistle 121). Augustine made a similar argument in his Exodus commentary, and elsewhere cautioned against presuming to know the mystery of the soul’s emergence (De Anima 4:5). In the Justinian Code (6th cent.), which shaped most of Europe’s laws until the 12th century, a fetus did not have a soul until after forty days of gestation (Billauer 2017, 305). There are medieval records praising Irish saints who performed abortions in miraculous fashion, and penitential manuals that prescribed lighter penance for women who have an abortion than for men who commit fornication (Callen 2012, 289-92).

Nonetheless, official Christian attitudes about abortion were broadly negative. A number of church fathers identified it as murder (e.g. Basil the Great, John Chrysostom), although it was not punished as such; instead, communion was usually withheld for an extended period. Medieval penitential manuals reinforced notions of fetal development by making penance more severe if the fetus was more than 40 days old—and they added other variables to the moral evaluation of abortion. A poor woman who could not afford to feed another mouth was judged more sympathetically than a promiscuous woman trying to cover up her actions. Pregnancy as a result of rape or fear of death for a woman with a narrow birth canal similarly lessened the required penance. These examples provide historical evidence of contextual and pastoral concerns nuancing ecclesiastical rules on abortion (Kamitsuka 2019, 29-31).   

Similar questions continued to percolate for centuries. Aquinas (13th cent.) declared it unnatural to abort a pregnancy, although there might be allowances if conceived through violence or deception. He described an embryo as first imbued with a vegetative soul, later with a sensitive soul (akin to animals), and only after six weeks is it endowed with the mark of human life—a rational soul. While abortion may have been morally unjustifiable to Aquinas, he did not view it as criminal until after a soul achieved human form (Amerini 2013, 7; 111).   

Centralization of papal authority and codification of canon law during the High Middle Ages marked a more rigorist turn, but official rulings still varied. In 1211, Pope Innocent III proclaimed that an abortion after quickening was punishable by excommunication (Sicut ex). Pope Sixtus V issued a bull in 1588 declaring that abortion is murder at any point during pregnancy, to be punished by excommunication and prosecuted by civil authorities who should seek the death penalty. Three years later, Pope Gregory IX rescinded that ruling and returned to the standard of quickening which he identified as 16 weeks of gestation (Sedes Apolstolica); his opinion prevailed until 1869 when Pope Pius IX reinstated the harsher bull. Modern Vatican statements such as the “Declaration on Procured Abortion” (1974) and Evangelium Vitae 61-62 (1995) disregard the multivocality of this history to assert an unchanging, unanimous theological conviction that an embryo is a human being from the moment of conception.

The Reformation did not add substantively to these debates. Martin Luther did not discuss abortion. Calvin, in his commentary on Exodus, asserted that the law of talion applied for the death of the fetus—but he did not write much about it.  

Rabbinic Judaism developed its discourse on abortion in a different way, with emphasis on the welfare of the woman—likely attributable to the focus on her in the biblical text. The Mishnah, an early effort to codify Rabbinic practice (3rd cent.), requires abortion if the mother’s life is in danger; it makes clear that the fetus does not have the status of a human being: 

If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and extract it limb by limb, because her life comes before its life. But if the majority [of the body] has emerged, we may not harm it, for we may not set aside one nefesh (living being) for another. (mOhal 7:6)  

Some modern Jewish authorities (e.g. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe, Choshen Mishpat II: 69B) argue from this text that saving the mother’s life is the only acceptable justification for abortion; others maintain that such a circumstance is the only time it is required, but abortion is permissible in other circumstances as well. Rashi, the premier medieval explicator in the Ashkenazi world (11th cent.), commented simply that the fetus is not a nefesh.

Mishnah generally explores principles through specific (often hypothetical) cases, demonstrating a preference for contextual ethics over broad pronouncements. If a pregnant woman is sentenced to be executed, for example, the court does not wait for the fetus to be born before carrying out the sentence unless labor has begun (mAr 1:4). In the Talmud, an extensive collection of teachings building on the Mishnah, the rabbis suggested that the ruling is obvious because the fetus is part of her body. The text also records an opinion that the fetus should be terminated before the sentence is carried out, so that the woman does not suffer further shame—introducing the emotional needs of the woman as a factor in considering abortion (bAr 7a).  

Yet this passage also mentions a case that suggests the line between fetus and nefesh is not absolute. Rabbi Nachman argued that, if a woman dies during childbirth on the Sabbath, one may violate Sabbath restrictions in order to save the fetus—an exemption usually given only when human life is potentially at stake.  

Ensoulment was not a pressing question in Rabbinic literature. One Talmudic passage (bSan 91b) imagines Emperor Antoninus amicably debating with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi about whether the soul is present at conception or formation. A similar tale in BerR 34:10 frames the options as in utero or at birth. In each case, Rabbi initially answered with the later option, but Antoninus convinced him otherwise (Schiff 2002, 42). Neither story, however, has implications for theology or praxis.   

The rabbis were not unaware of medical observations about fetal development, but its implications centered on the pregnant woman. In the case of a miscarriage before 41 days of gestation, for example, she does not need to observe rituals of niddah (separation from marital relations related to vaginal bleeding—bNid 30a). This emphasis on her experience is also evident in Maimonides’ medieval legal code, in which he maintained that a nursing woman can fulfill cravings even if her husband thinks it might jeopardize the infant. “The pain of her body prevails”—even after the child is born (MT Hilchot Ishut 21:11, Barilan 2009, 133).  

Although historical Jewish attitudes toward abortion made room for various contingencies, Rabbinic discourse maintained a strong pro-natalist ethic. “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) was taken seriously as a divine commandment. And, as evident in Christian discourse, the rules regarding abortion seemed to tighten in the Middle Ages. The first to document a Jewish prohibition on abortion when it was not a matter of saving the woman’s life were the Tosafists (12–14th cent.). Comparing Jewish law for Jews and Gentiles, they argued that nothing is permitted to a Jew that is forbidden to others so  abortion is forbidden (tosHul 33a). Some contemporary scholars speculate that medieval Jewish leaders grew more concerned about abortion because they felt responsible for “a community perpetually engaged in a desperate struggle for survival against disease, expulsion, and massacre” (Gordis 1988, 22).   

Other distinctions between Jewish and Christian traditions may contribute to divergent approaches to the abortion debate. One is Christianity’s anxiety about non-procreative human sexuality, magnifying the value of the fetus and multiplying issues with abortion (Kamitsuka 2019, 22-23). Although such anxiety is not completely unknown within Judaism, mainstream Rabbinic opinion is substantially sex-positive within marriage.   

Another is the question of original sin. In contrasting Jewish and Christian attitudes when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk, David Feldman surmises that Christian authorities privileged the fetus due to concerns about an unbaptized soul condemned to suffer in eternity; he points to the 19th-cent. invention of a baptismal syringe as evidence (Feldman 1986, 84). According to John Noonan, however, Christian opposition to abortion is not related to original sin or even to fetal ensoulment; he views it simply as “a refusal to discriminate among human beings on the basis of their varying potentialities” (Noonan 1970, 51).   

Amidst the rise of nations and state authority over abortion, attitudes and policies continued to vary in ways that are often forgotten. Britain had easy access to abortion until 1803, but by 1861 it was considered a felony. In the United States, abortion before quickening was legal in most states until the Civil War. Pressure to change the law came largely from the American Medical Association. Between 1860–1880, forty states adopted statutes criminalizing abortion; by 1900 it was national policy.  

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, legalized abortion in 1920 after the revolution. Although limits waxed and waned, communist countries frequently had more liberal policies. It was not until the 1960s and 70s that many Western nations re-legalized abortion, amidst a broad campaign to expand women’s rights and civil rights. At that point, reproductive rights had bipartisan albeit not universal support in the U.S.—but the Republican Party grew increasingly hostile. Since 1984, there has been a plank in the party platform insisting that human life begins at conception. In 2021, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to empower priests to deny communion to political leaders who support reproductive rights—generally Democrats—even though the Vatican had discouraged such unilateral and politicized action.

In many of these historical shifts, convictions about abortion may have been secondary. It is likely that Pope Sixtus primarily sought to control sexual promiscuity among priests and to centralize power (Castuera 2017, 172), that the AMA wanted to wrest control of birth from women and midwives in their drive to professionalize medicine (Castuera, 189), and that Republican strategists wanted to woo Christians by making abortion and segregation polarizing issues (Greenhouse 2011, 2065–71). As a consequence, it is difficult to trace the actual impact of religious teachings on historical events, including the unfolding relationship of Christians and Jews.   

One visible development is the emergence of Jewish-Christian coalitions in the U.S. leading up to Roe v. Wade. Before the Supreme Court asserted that the right of privacy includes reproductive rights, the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion (CCS) organized over 1,000 Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious leaders to counsel women struggling with their pregnancies for various reasons. CCS services included referrals for illegal abortions or help traveling to a state where women could obtain a legal one. Members advocated for reform in their state legislatures, testified in public hearings, and preached from the pulpit. Alliances and denominational positions did not neatly align with today’s politics. Evangelical journals and leaders were largely supportive of legalizing therapeutic abortion (Toulouse 2001, 338–39), for example, and some preachers argued that it would better support family values.   

Once Roe v. Wade was decided, interreligious efforts often focused on the moral dimensions of reproductive justice. A group in California that included the American Jewish Committee and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for example, issued a statement titled “Respect for Life” in 1980; it promoted adoption as an alternative to abortion and sought to stem the poverty, inequality, and sexual exploitation that pressed women into these difficult situations. Many of these projects fostered a “safe, legal, and rare” approach that tries to stake out a middle ground.  

Abortion became profoundly politicized and polarized, however, with people using religion for partisan advantage and politics for sectarian gains. Increasingly, Jewish and Christian advocates selected religious teachings that supported their perspective and ignored the others. They began to find more common cause with those on the same side of the political question than with their co-religionists who disagree. It has created alliances of anti-abortion orthodox Jews, Catholics, and evangelical Christians—standing against progressive Jews and Christians like those in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. They file briefs on opposite sides of liminal court cases, with multifaith conservatives stressing respect for human life and religious progressives offering arguments that emphasize religious liberty. 

Jews and Christians in the conservative camp frequently bond first on issues such as school choice and support for Israel, but abortion fits the religio-political paradigm. When New York liberalized their abortion laws in 2019, the orthodox Rabbinical Council of America and ultra-orthodox Agudath Israel of America joined with the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists, all issuing statements to decry “abortion on demand.”  

As other states passed increasingly restrictive laws hoping to prompt a test case to overturn Roe v. Wade, however, many American Jews—even religiously and politically conservative voices—have expressed concern. Their minority status makes them protective of the wall of separation of religion and state, given the ease with which majority faiths can dominate public discourse and policy. Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health (June 2022), Justice Alito's leaked draft caused alarm. Over half of the states were poised to ban or severely restrict access to abortion once it was no longer a constitutionally protected right, and conservative groups began to target abortifacient contraceptives as well. These laws do not make room for the nuance or religious reasoning of Jewish tradition.

According to Pew’s Religious Landscape Study (2014, read here), 83% of American Jews support legal access to abortion in most/all cases. The majority support among Christians is much more modest, and 77% of White evangelical Protestants think it should be illegal in most/all cases. The imbalance reflects the political and denominational demographics of the communities as well as differences in affiliation rates with traditional versus progressive denominations. Yet the disparity also makes some Jews feel additionally vulnerable amidst the rise in antisemitism, fundamentalist Christian power in politics, and an increasingly conservative Supreme Court. After Roe was overturned and states immediately began to restrict abortion access, one synagogue in Florida quickly filed suit, protesting the stripping of religious freedom.

Although religious freedom is often invoked by conservatives when it comes to discrimination cases, concern for religious liberty forms the heart of the progressive coalition on abortion. As one interreligious group argued in a brief submitted in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, “Abandoning the viability standard would erase the only credibly coherent line anyone has yet identified that preserves even a modicum of respect for the many different faith perspectives that the people of this nation hold dear.”

These groups also emphasize the moral agency of women as a religious value. And they have begun to address how the focus on abortion rights obscures ways in which support for teen parents, paid leave, safe communities, food security, and a host of other issues are also part of reproductive justice.

On a smaller scale, interpersonal relations between Christians and Jews have the potential to bridge the ideological chasm between pro-life and pro-choice, modeling ways to navigate differences that matter. Alongside the traditions’ thick capacity for ambiguity and multivocality, recognizing that truths frequently collide, Jewish-Christian relations may help excavate space for more fruitful public discourse on abortion.

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