The overturn of Roe v Wade is an attack on Jewish women’s right to freedom of religion

“I will not assist you in murdering your baby.” That’s what a doctor told me when I was experiencing early pregnancy loss and had been sent to his office from him to talk about receiving what should have been routine medical care.

I was devastated to be suffering from a miscarriage. The pregnancy was non-viable. The heartbeat inside of me at nine weeks’ gestation was at 40 beats per minute; a viable pregnancy which results in a baby needs to be at 140-150 beats per minute. I was in the middle of miscarrying, and I needed medical care to make sure that I didn’t retain any fetal products, which can be extremely dangerous and even deadly.

But the doctor who was supposed to help me said, “Life begins at conception. When there is a heartbeat, it is a person. If you remove the fetus, you are killing a baby.”

Horrified and in a state of shock that someone could consider me a murderer, I thought: I have never prayed to Gd harder in my life than to have a healthy pregnancy. It is not working out and not what I wanted. Why is he saying I am killing my baby?

With tears I responded that I am Jewish and, according to Jewish law, the life of the mother comes first. That includes her mental health. I was suffering mentally and physically from the outcome of this pregnancy. Why wouldn’t he act to relieve my pain?

But it was a futile conversation. I was given a speech about morality, when his job was to treat me for a medical condition. I was not looking for ethical guidance; in those instances I also turn to professionals who are knowledgeable in their field, such as my rabbi, who can help me answer questions of conscience and faith. I don’t expect such conversations when I visit a medical professional.

Judaism has always encouraged debate and thoughtfulness about a variety of issues, but in the case of abortion, there are concrete examples that our leaders base their interpretations of the law on. There is also one steadfast rule to which every Jewish leader subscribes: If a woman’s life is in danger during a pregnancy, the life of the mother always comes first and she must always be saved first. Judaism does not allow for a woman’s life to be sacrificed for a fetus.

I reached out to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, to discuss this in further detail. She explained in a phone interview that Jewish law is clear when it comes to abortion: “A story from the Book of Exodus, part of the Hebrew Bible, forms the basis of Judaism’s formal take on abortion. Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm-doer is obliged to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as a manslaughter. We learn from that that the fetus has a different status than the person. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.”

Ruttenberg further cited the Talmud, a collection of statements from ancient rabbis, which states that for the first 40 days of pregnancy the fetus is merely water and has no legal or moral status at all. From the conclusion of that 40-day period until the end of the pregnancy it is seen as part of the woman’s body de ella, “as its mothers de ella thigh de ella.” Again, the fetus is seen as secondary to the mother.

The concept of life beginning at conception is not part of Jewish theology. In fact, according to the Torah, Genesis 2:7, a “living soul” is created when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life”. Life began for the first man when he could breathe on his own; there is no mention of a heartbeat.

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is an Orthodox rabbi and the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization. He explained, “Abortion is a sad reality and a very sensitive issue for almost all involved as few people are flippant about ending a potential life. But, in some situations, Jewish law mandates abortion as the right and necessary choice.”

According to Jewish scholars both ancient and current, each case where an abortion might be needed is a unique situation for the person and families involved. Judaism values ​​women and believes that they can make consequential decisions about their bodies and their lives.

“The right to an abortion, when appropriate, reflects not only the Jewish commitment to the dignity of a woman but also to the central commitments of what constitutes a just society,” Yanklowitz explained.

The Supreme Court should not be meddling in religious freedoms as they are with the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Certain states will limit or completely eliminate a woman’s right to choose her own medical treatment as the laws in many states are based on a fringe position from some hardline Christian theologians that life starts at conception. This undermines my First Amendment rights that no one religion or religious interpretation will be enshrined in law or regulation. As a Jewish person, I am supposed to be guaranteed the ability to practice my religious beliefs freely — including exercising the belief that a fetus is not a person by having access to appropriate medical care during pregnancy, including abortion. Enforcing Christian beliefs on the entirety of American society goes against everything the Constitution clearly states.

Yanklowitz explained, “With all respect to our Christian friends, we don’t want Christian theologies to mandate abortion laws in America for Jews, especially in situations where the mother’s life is in jeopardy. Jewish people should be pushing back on these laws as they violate the separation between religion and state and are potentially an attack on religious freedom.”

Jewish organizations are already fighting back against the overturn of Roe: In Florida, a synagogue has filed a lawsuit against the newly restrictive abortion law, arguing that it violates religious freedom. The National Council of Jewish Women has said that it will train women across the country to mount challenges against abortion bans. And the Women’s Rabbinic Network has pledged to continue to help all women seeking access to abortion. Through such actions, we can only hope that positive change might be enacted.

As for me, it feels clear that my religious beliefs are disregarded, and my ability to make decisions about my health care in accordance with my faith are being dismantled. If Supreme Court justices don’t care about this attack on my fundamental rights, then I shudder to think what other impositions they might make in the future.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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