Think about the relationship between faith and abortion, at least in the United States, and you might conjure up images of prayer circles at the March for Life, or protesters outside clinics, or a priest delivering a sermon. on the sanctity of life. Religion is often associated with an anti-abortion stance in the American popular imagination — and white evangelicals have been encouraging this connection for decades. Today, those efforts culminate in the most disastrous year for abortion access since Roe vs. Wade was decided 49 years ago, and in the likely reversal of the Supreme Court decision Deer. But many of us who work to protect abortion rights do due to our religious commitments, not in spite of them.
I am a rabbi and scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, which fights to preserve the right to abortion and expand access to the procedure. Our organization’s Rabbis for Repro network includes more than 1,800 Jewish clergy of all faiths committed to supporting access to abortion for all. My activism is grounded in both Jewish law and my tradition’s understanding of our deep commitments to one another.
A story from the book of Exodus, which is part of the Hebrew Bible, forms the backbone of Judaism’s formal view of abortion. Two people are fighting; a pregnant woman is accidentally pushed, causing a miscarriage. The text describes the consequences: If only a miscarriage occurs, the wrongdoer is obliged to pay damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: the fetus is seen as potential life rather than real life.
This idea is emphasized in the Talmud, a collection of statements by ancient rabbis. One states that, during the first 40 days of pregnancy, a fetus is “just water” – essentially, it has no legal status. From the end of this 40-day period until the end of the pregnancy, it is considered part of the pregnant person’s body – “like the thigh of its mother”, says the Talmud. Here again, the fetus is secondary to the adult human who carries it.
This becomes clearer when pregnancy or labor endangers the pregnant person. According to an approximately 2,000 year old source called the Mishna (the core of the Talmud), abortion is explicitly called to save their lives. The life of the baby only comes into consideration once the head is out. But beyond life-and-death situations, Jewish law permits abortion in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause “misfortune” – and that includes risks to mental health or kavod habriot (dignity).
Access to abortion is therefore a matter of religious freedom. Jews are allowed to terminate a pregnancy, and when our lives are at stake, we may be compelled by Jewish law to do so. Government intervention that would prevent the free exercise of these religious principles is a violation of First Amendment rights. And as 54 faith groups argued in an amicus brief supporting the Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the clinic challenged a Mississippi abortion ban that could overturn deer, abortion laws that enshrine specific Christian concepts — “fetal personality,” for example, or the notion that life begins at conception — trample on other understandings of when life begins. This affects not only Jews, but also Muslims, atheists, agnostics and many Christians who support reproductive freedom.
Many secular conversations revolve around whether abortion is a right. But in Judaism, we talk about responsibilities—to each other and to God. For me, defending abortion is about our broader ethical and spiritual obligations, as well as those specifically prescribed by Jewish law. In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites freed from slavery are called upon to set up systems of care for the most socially marginalized. We are taught to seek out those most harmed and to focus on their needs. And indeed, abortion bans aggravate all the structural inequalities in our society. They disproportionately affect people in financial difficulty and people of color. Limited access to abortion presents additional challenges for those who already face barriers to accessing health care, including young people, people living in rural communities, immigrants, people with disabilities, trans men and some non-binary people. And people who are denied access to reproductive health care are more likely to live in poverty and remain in abusive relationships.
I believe we serve the divine when we care for those created in the divine image. And people of all different religious backgrounds are compelled to fight for reproductive freedom for similar reasons. “Abortion justice is sacred work for me because it is aligned with the most sacred values of my faith: compassion, kindness and love,” Reverend Katey Zeh, Baptist minister and CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. “When I provide spiritual care and accompaniment to someone through their reproductive journey, I feel the call to love my neighbor.” Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, expressed the same sentiment in a speech in December: “In the gospel, Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free. Here’s the truth: One in four abortion patients in this country is Catholic, and for them abortion is a blessing.
People of faith like Zeh and Manson serve as crucial reminders that being a Christian does not necessarily equate to holding an anti-abortion stance. In fact, some of the Catholic opposition to abortion may be partly rooted in a mistranslated word in a biblical passage. And other sects of Christianity have changed their stance on abortion over time. In 1971, 1974, and 1976, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions suggesting that the government should not interfere with abortion decisions. The reason for the change since then, whether political or theological, cannot be identified, but if and when the Supreme Court overturns its Roe vs. Wade decision, as expected, we must remember that for many people, safe and accessible abortion is a religious value. I will continue to fight for this, along with my compatriots of all faiths – and no faith – until we can truly live out our obligations to care for each other.