Contemporary Issues In Bioethics

A Halachic Response


General facts about abortions

Abortions are operations that terminate pregnancies. It is an intervention, in which the embryo or fetus is removed from the womb.

'Most abortions are performed during the first trimester of pregnancy (up to 12 weeks), but some might be performed in the second trimester (12 to 24 weeks) or, in rare circumstances, in the third trimester (24 to 36 weeks).'

(Better Health State Government of Victoria, 2013)

  • Surgical abortion is a low-risk procedure most commonly used for first trimester. It is known as suction curette, which involves removing the lining and contents of the uterus (womb).
  • Medical abortion is a low-risk alternative to surgery used for terminating pregnancies earlier than 7-9 weeks. (Better Health State Government of Victoria, 2013)

  • Abortion's ethical dilemma

    Is there a time limit for terminating pregnancy?

    The act of terminating a pregnancy is considered by many as murder, as it is denying the unborn a life. However, could this ethical dilemma be related to murder if the child has not developed its complete form enough to be considered human?

    There is a universal law which states that an abortion or termination can take place within a certain time period. Does this apply in Jewish law?

    Competing values that must be considered

    A right to choose VS a fetus' right to life.

    Both seem to be supported by Jewish law, however, which takes precedence over the other?

    Halachic response

    Principles that can be used to provide an answer to this dilemma

    Judaism doesn’t forbid abortion, however, it does not permit abortion on demand.

    Abortion is only permitted for serious reasons.

    Jewish law discusses abortions on different levels as the extreme or strict perspective on abortion refers to the mothers life being at risk and the lenient or compassionate law is concerned with abortions which may take place in the first 40 days of pregnancy, as it considers the embryo to be of relatively little value during this time.

    Judaism has a supreme concern for the sanctity of human life. This is demonstrated by the quote from the Mishnah Sanhedrin (4:5), stating, "he who destroys one soul is, in the eyes of the Torah, as one who destroyed an entire world. One who saves a soul, is as one who has saved an entire world." This source refers to the value of each life and explains that the entire world was dependent on one man (Adam), thus we mustn't underestimate the value and power of each living human being.

    Similarly, in Rabbi Joseph Karo's Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 336), we are told "The Torah gave permission to the physician to heal; moreover, this is a religious commandment and it is included in the category of saving life. If he withholds his services, it is considered as shedding blood." This demonstrates the doctor’s obligation to preserve life, NOT destroy it. This quote also merges with the famous law from Leviticus 19:16 “…you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbour” discussing that any man who is able to save another, must.

    Yoseph Ben Matityahu once wrote, "The law has commanded to raise all children and prohibited women from aborting or destroying seed; a woman who does so shall be judged a murderess of children for she has caused a soul to be lost and the family of man to be diminished." Further stressing the importance and value of each life.

    Rabbi Yair Bachrach, author of ‘Chavot Yair’, does not accept the forty days distinction because he derives the prohibition of feticide (abortion) from wasting male seed, which is prohibited even before conception (Rabbi Yaakov Emden argues that "wasting seed" only bars preventing the semen from reaching the woman's uterus).

    Rabbi Unterman, previous Ashkenazi chief Rabbi of Israel, ruled that a fetus is protected by the prohibition of murder, regarding the removal of an embryo, as shedding blood. He supports his opinion by quoting the ‘Toras Ha'Adam’, a famous Jewish law book by Ramban that discusses medical issues.

    The Ramban quotes the Ba'al Halachot Gedolot, who asserts that one may desecrate the Sabbath for a fetus because, by desecrating one Sabbath, the fetus will be able to fulfil many Sabbaths in the future (This line of reasoning is brought in Talmud Yoma 85b as one possible reason for why saving a life overrides the Sabbath). Thus, the Ba'al Halachot Gedolot argues that saving the life of a fetus before forty days overrides the Sabbath; therefore arguing that feticide is murder.

    There is reason to argue that prior to forty days pregnancy, the fetus lacks "humanity."

    Rabbi Daniel Eisenberg M.d, suggests that "a fetus prior to forty days conception, is not considered to be an actual person and we might extrapolate that destruction of such a fetus is not forbidden by Jewish law".

    Furthermore, Rabbi Yechiel Weinberg, author of the ‘Responsa Seridei Aish’, clearly held that there is no prohibition of abortion before forty days, since there is no "limb" to injure prior to formation of a recognizable fetus at that time.

    Regardless of religion and faith, every single human being in the world is forbidden to commit homicide. Yet, according to many commentators, non-Jews are not bound by the commandment in Leviticus 19:16 to protect the lives of their comrades, as it was not commanded to Noah during the time of the flood. The scope of their prohibition includes murder and "shedding blood of man within man." These obligations include only actual lives, not potential lives. Thus, there is no prohibition of abortion for a non-Jew, or for a Jew to aid in such an abortion, before the fortieth day of conception.

    more questions that you could think about in relation to abortion...

    1. Can one deny a child the right to live? Hint ☞ Discuss conditions in which abortion is permitted e.g. danger of the carrier (mother).
    2. Are abortions considered murder if the fetus hasn’t even developed its organs? Hint ☞ You can refer to texts from the REMA addressing viability.
    3. At what point is a fetus considered alive? Hint ☞ it's got something to do with the infants rosh ;)

    Judaism and Abortion!


    BBC . (2013). Ethics Guide. Retrieved August 20, 2013, from

    BBC. (2013). Abortion. Retrieved August 20, 2013, from Religions:

    BBC. (2013). Moral Personhood. Retrieved from

    MD, D. E. (1997). Jewish Law Articles. Retrieved August 20, 2013, from Stem Cell Research in Jewish Law :

    The Institute for Jewish Medical Ethics. (1996). Abortion and Halacha . Retrieved August 19, 2013, from Jewish Virtual Library:

    Your life - your Judaism. (2013). Abortion in Jewish Law. Retrieved August 20, 2013, from

    Caulfield North Shule (Call 123 -shuleknowsbest-090)

    This is our Halachic response to a serious issue with which we are faced with on a daily basis.