Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Religious Argument For Being Pro-Choice

I originally posted the piece below in the first incarnation of this blog on February 27, 2006. With Republican Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates who are strongly anti-choice I felt it was time to post this again. The anti-abortion position is always portrayed by the right as somehow the correct moral choice and the position that anyone who believes in G-d must take. It just isn't true and even Christianity is hardly unified on the issue of abortion.

Anyway, here is what I wrote. It seems particularly timely in this election season when faith and politics are mixed all too often:


When the anti-abortion crowd states unequivocally that abortion is murder they are voicing a belief based on fundamentalist Christian interpretation of scripture. It certainly isn't based on science or medicine which would argue that you have a child at some point in the pregnancy when the fetus is viable and can live outside the mothers womb. Nobody would argue based on science that a newly fertilized egg is a distinct individual. To make that argument one must turn to religion.

Similarly, based on my Jewish religious tradition and a mainstream (Conservative or modern Orthodox) interpretation of scripture I could argue unequivocally that life begins at birth, not before, and abortion is never tantamount to taking a life.

Yes, I know conservative Christians use some of what they call Old Testament scripture to justify their position. The problem with this is that from a Jewish perspective Christians reorder the Tanakh (Bible), mixing up Nevi'im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). They also weigh the whole Tanakh equally while Jews give greater weight to the Torah (Law), or the five books of Moses. So, then... what does the Torah have to say about abortion? Quite a lot, actually.

Let me quote Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, from his excellent book The Ten Commandments of Character, which I highly recommend:
"My view is shaped by Jewish tradition, which, while strongly limiting instances in which it regards abortion as permissible (e,g., when the mother's physical or mental well-being are imperiled), categorically rejects the notion of abortion as murder. The classic case in Jewish law is one discussed in the Torah. Exodus 21:22-23 rules that if two men are fighting and one murders the pregnant wife of the other, the killer is executed. But if instead of killing the wife, he wounds her and causes her pregnancy to be aborted, "the assailant shall be fined." As this passage makes clear, whatever value the fetus has, the Hebrew Bible (which Christians call the Old Testament) doesn't grant the status of human life. If it did the punishment for killing the fetus wouldn't be a monetary fine, but the same as that for killing the woman, i.e., death. Therefore, according to the Hebrew Bible, abortion is definitely not murder."
It should not be surprising that Israel, a Jewish nation in which Orthodox religious leaders have considerable sway, permits abortion on demand. Israel, unlike the United States, does not have separation of religion and state.

Abortion is a necessary evil. The choice must belong to the woman. One would hope she would consult with her doctor, her spiritual advisor (in a Jewish setting this would be a rabbi), and, if appropriate, the father. The state, though, has no right to interfere.

In a nation where one of it's chief founders, Thomas Jefferson, called for "a wall of separation between church and state" imposing a ban on abortion based on one religious belief, no matter how prevalent, is simply wrong. If polls are right a majority of Americans are pro-choice in any case, not that numbers should matter. I, as a member of a religious minority, do not want to see any one religion or set of beliefs given supremacy over all others. That issue goes far beyond abortion. Once that happens, once the United States starts moving towards theocracy, it would no longer be a country I could be comfortable living in. Banning abortion based on Christian religious belief is, indeed, theocratic.

I certainly don't want the state or someone else's religion making medical decisions which could have severe consequences for the woman involved for the rest of her life.

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