Jews, outraged by restrictive abortion laws, are invoking the Hebrew Bible in the debate

Lindsay Schnell

When Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican, signed into law in May one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans, she invoked her faith. 

“To the bill’s many supporters, this legislation stands as a powerful testament to Alabamians’ deeply held belief that every life is precious and that every life is a sacred gift from God,” Ivey said in a statement. 

This is a familiar argument for the Republican Party when it comes to abortion access. In January, Kirk Cox, speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, cited biblical scripture when he came out against a proposed bill that would lift late-term abortion restrictions. 

"You knit me together in my mother’s womb,” he said, quoting Psalm 139. “You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born.” 

But for many leaders in the Jewish faith, such interpretations are problematic and even insulting.

“It makes me apoplectic,” says Danya Ruttenberg, a Chicago-based rabbi who has written about Jews' interpretation of abortion. “Most of the proof texts that they’re bringing in for this are ridiculous. They’re using my sacred text to justify taking away my rights in a way that is just so calculated and craven.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg takes issue with conservative Christians pointing to the Psalms as proof that abortion should be illegal.

Across the country, as a wave of anti-abortion legislation reinvigorates the fight over reproductive rights, Jewish religious leaders, activists and women are speaking out in favor of a woman's right to choose, buoyed by their faith.

It’s not just that the U.S. shouldn’t be deriving law from poetic language, Ruttenberg said. It’s that the Jewish tradition has a distinctly different reading of the same texts. While conservative Christians use the Bible to argue that a fetus represents a human life, which makes abortion murder, Jews don’t believe that fetuses have souls and, therefore, terminating a pregnancy is no crime. 

While some Orthodox rabbis have denounced abortion, within Jewish communities there’s considerable support for keeping it legal. Studies from the Pew Research Center show that Jews overwhelmingly (83%) support abortion rights. The National Council of Jewish Women, a 126-year-old organization that helped establish some of the first birth control clinics across the country, considers reproductive rights a cornerstone issue and has publicly condemned the strict abortion bans recently handed down in Alabama and Mississippi. 

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Republicans have been pushing for decades to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that recognized a woman's right to an abortion. Now, with two Supreme Court appointments from President Donald Trump giving the court a conservative bent, the law seems more at risk than ever before. Restrictive laws are being passed all over the South, and, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks abortion legislation, 30 states now "demonstrate hostility toward abortion rights" while 14 demonstrate support.

It’s common in this debate to hear the Christian perspective. But what’s often left out of the conversation is how Jews, who read the Hebrew Bible – referred to in Christian circles as the Old Testament – argue that their tradition condones abortion. Sometimes, if the mother's life is at stake, it even insists on it. 

“This is a big deal for us,” Ruttenberg says. “We’re very clear about a woman’s right to choose. And we’re very clear about the separation between church and state.” 

What Jewish lawmakers say about abortion rights

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., likes to joke that she took tikkun olam so seriously, she wound up in politics.

Within the Jewish tradition, tikkun olam – Hebrew for “repair the world” – is a sort of call to action, a concept defined by acts of kindness and service that help heal the world. Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in Congress, says her faith informs her politics every day. 

“I have always served and looked at policy through a distinctly Jewish lens,” Wasserman Schultz says. “And so for me, when I’m thinking about a woman’s right to make her own reproductive choices, the Jewish tradition that I’ve always been taught holds that existing life should take precedence over potential life, and a woman’s life and her pain should take precedence over a fetus.” 

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The strongest argument in the Hebrew Bible for permitting abortion comes from Exodus, Chapter 21, Verse 22-23: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take a life for a life.” 

In this passage, "gives birth prematurely" could mean the woman miscarries, and the fetus dies. Because there's no expectation that the person who caused the miscarriage is liable for murder, Jewish scholars argue this proves a fetus is not considered a separate person or soul. 

The Talmud, a two-part Jewish text comprised of centuries worth of thought, debate and discussion, is also helpful when discussing abortion. The Talmud explains that for the first 40 days of a woman’s pregnancy, the fetus is considered “mere fluid” and considered part of the mother until birth. The baby is considered a nefesh – Hebrew for “soul” or “spirit” – once its head has emerged, and not before. 

Jewish tradition and scholars have also acknowledged a pregnant woman’s potential “great need” to terminate a pregnancy. 

Rabbi Elizer Waldenberg, a leading authority on Jewish law who died in 2006, wrote in Tzitz Eliezer, his major text, that "it is clear that in Jewish law an Israelite is not liable to capital punishment for feticide. ... An Israelite woman was permitted to undergo a therapeutic abortion, even though her life was not at stake. ... This permissive ruling applies even when there is no direct threat to the life of the mother, but merely a need to save her from great pain, which falls within the rubric of ‘great need.’”

“There’s a lot of ambiguity about what that need means,” Ruttenberg says. “A psychological need is considered real.” 

Wasserman Schultz references pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of a human life overrides nearly all other religious considerations, which also allows a woman to seek an abortion, especially if her own life is in danger. 

“You can use that same principle to show that women, more than anyone else, understand their bodies and what medical decisions are right for them,” Wasserman Schultz says.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., is the first Jewish woman to represent Florida in the Unites States Congress.

For Wasserman Schultz, abortion access should be unrestricted, regardless of faith. “I’m not going to tell you that you’re interpreting Scripture incorrectly,” she says. “But don’t prescribe rules for me and my decisions based on your interpretation of your scripture.” 

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Retired U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer was one of the most prominent Jewish lawmakers in the country while she represented California for 24 years. There’s no doubt, Boxer says, that faith informs each person's views on a variety of subjects. But that’s exactly what they are – personal views, not something for everyone else to comment, or legislate, on.

“If you respect religion, then you should be pro-choice,” Boxer says. “We can’t always agree 100% with each other, but we can respect each other … and I feel I am respecting religion by saying I would fight for your rights regardless of what you believe.” 

Religious freedom concerns

To Rabbi Michael Adam Latz of Minneapolis, the fight over abortion rights – and lawmakers who reference their faith as a reason for why certain laws should exist – is a larger issue. That shouldn’t just worry Jews, whose tradition teaches something other than Evangelical Christianity, he says. It should worry anyone who believes in religious freedom. 

“While I certainly understand that there are people who disagree with me, in a nation for which religious pluralism is a hallmark, to impose one religious tradition on this is not actually how a democracy functions, it’s how a theocracy functions,” Latz says. 

Every person of conscious, he says, regardless of their personal views on abortion, should be deeply concerned. 

That sentiment is echoed by Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. Katz has been in her role only since June, but she says she was struck in her first few days on the job by the number of volunteers and activists she saw in the streets engaging in the debate over abortion rights. It makes her angry, she says, when men try to govern women’s bodies. As a member of a religious minority, she’s particularly wary of one dominant religion trying to govern based on its faith texts. 

“As Jews, we know that true religious freedom is a shield to protect all religions and never a sword to discriminate,” she said. “It often feels like religion is used to discriminate – and that is not something we stand for, regardless of the issue.” 

Latz has spent time speaking on women’s rights both from the pulpit and in smaller conversations with his congregation. He says his directness can catch some people off guard. But a rabbi’s job is to teach the Torah, he says, and the Torah itself is “inherently political." 

“It’s important to recognize that this is not a new fight,” Latz says. “This is just the latest chapter. Our tradition teaches that women don’t have abortions they want – they have abortions they need.” 

Abortion felt like only option 

For at least one Jewish activist, that rings especially true. She didn't necessarily want an abortion – she felt she had no other choice. 

It was 1967, and Nancy Litz didn’t want to be pregnant. 

Six years before the Roe vs. Wade ruling would guarantee a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion, Litz, then a freshman in college, believed terminating her pregnancy was a necessity. Her father had recently died, and her mother, who had dreamed of going away to college herself, was at what Litz described as “a horribly traumatic point in her own life.” She never considered what she did destroying a human life. 

“I don’t believe that clump of cells, while it was potential life, was actual life,” Litz says. “And it certainly wasn’t more important to me than the lives of the people I already knew and loved.” 

Through a friend, Litz connected with a doctor, a man she says told her he was compelled to perform the illegal procedure because he had daughters of his own who were college age and he wouldn’t want them opting for a dangerous, back-alley operation in hopes of extracting themselves from a desperate situation. 

Fifty-two years later, Litz, 71, lives in St. Louis and owns a small business.  Her abortion story isn’t gruesome, and there were no lingering consequences. Litz, who has two grown daughters, is now an activist and volunteer with the National Council of Jewish Women and shares her story whenever she can. She’s disturbed by both the potential of Roe being overturned, and the way other faith leaders frame the conversation around abortion. 

“The right word is shame,” Litz said. “What I heard were women telling stories about having an abortion and the suffering with giant regrets and self-condemnation, and I couldn’t help but thinking, I couldn’t help but wondering – how much of that was genuinely the feelings that they had about the procedure, and how much of it was layered onto them by messages from specific faith traditions telling them that what they had done was terrible?” 

Litz came to Judaism later in life. Raised Protestant, she wasn’t practicing by the time she went off to college. Even if she had been active in the church at the time she got pregnant, she can’t imagine she ever would have consulted a minister – in the '60s, abortion wasn’t something you talked about openly. She recalls a couple of girls in her high school disappearing for a stretch, then magically showing up again, presumably after they’d given birth. The media, she remembers, was consumed for a time with a woman who traveled all the way to Japan to access abortion services. But even then, discussions stayed quiet. 

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She wonders, too, if people really understand the risk women will be under if Roe is overturned. Like many activists, Litz is adamant that criminalizing abortion won’t stop it – it’ll just make it deadly. Women will continue to terminate pregnancies and put their lives in danger in the process. Years after her abortion, Litz got emotional when she read that in 1967, 42% of the nation’s maternal death rate was attributed to botched abortion. She’s terrified of those numbers resurfacing. 

Litz says she’s often praised privately by other women who have had abortions, women who comment on her bravery and honesty, admitting they could never share publicly the way she does. 

“It just doesn’t make sense,” she says. “Why can’t we, as people of faith who have different specific beliefs about the significance of terminating a pregnancy, be equally free to express our truth? 

“It’s distressing to me that extreme right wing conservatives, that specific segment of Christianity, has co-opted this entire discussion. ... They present themselves as speaking for all people of faith when that is really not the case.” 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Abortion laws: Jewish faith teaches life does not start at conception