Monday, December 13, 2010

Abortion as a Rational Halachist

I have been thinking for a long time exactly how to approach the topic of abortion in this blog. The two topics that we have already discussed - the halachic definition of death, and the rationale for treating a goy on shabbos - were very different.  The first topic we analyzed with our five principles, and discussed how changing understanding of physiology could affect the way we define halachically when death occurs. The second was more of a moral dilemma, and we demonstrated how a re-analysis of the sources can lead one to a different understanding of the halacha then that which is often presented in many of the contemporary works of halacha.

Abortion is a different type of issue and we can approach it from many different angles.  It also has the unique distinction of being a very highly charged political issue, with two very active and vocal schools of thought fighting each other in the public and political arenas.  So it goes without saying, that Orthodox Jews want to know what the position of the Torah is on this volatile issue.  I have spent many years researching the subject in the Torah sources and there has been lots of ink spilled.  However, there is one very fascinating observation that i have made as I traveled through the traditional sources on abortion that will be the underlying theme of my blog posts on this topic.

I actually believe that the halachos of aborting a fetus is quite unique among the many areas that halacha deals with.  That is because the fundamental laws that pertain to abortion are extremely unclear from the Torah and chazal.  This has led to a situation where the later halachic authorities have scrambled to try to find out what exactly the fundamental issues are that need to be understood in order to decide practical halacha. The differences among the poskim regarding the fundamental understanding of exactly what prohibitions may be involved in aborting a fetus leads to dramatically different practical conclusions. I am sure that many of you are wondering what I mean, so I will explain a little more, and I promise that it will become clear as I develop these ideas.

I also need to start with the caveat that I am not going to try to take sides in this issue.  You are all aware that I am totally not afraid to promote halachic positions that I believe in, even if they are controversial.  So I am not afraid of saying what I believe to be true.  However, what I will set out to do here is demonstrate how unusual and fascinating this subject is, and how disparate the opinions of the poskim are, and explain why they are so different.  At the end I will also state what i believe is the right public position for Orthodox Jews in terms of politics and the legal system, and I am aware that this may lead to some heated and excited discussion.  However, my main point is not to promote any political position on abortion, but rather to bring you along on a unique journey through most interesting medical halachic topic.

Many if not most of the sources I will use are easily available and quoted in the Encylopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics by Dr Avraham Steinberg in his entry on abortion, so I owe him a great debt in compiling much of this material.  However, I will have my own take on these sources which you will understand as we proceed.

My first post will be "Is Abortion Even Prohibited?" and I will trace the shita of those poskim who hold that there is no real issur at all to perform an abortion.  This is not meant to give you an impression of what the halacha is, just to start with the extreme lenient opinion.  We will then work our way up until we reach the most stringent.


  1. I presume by the most lenient opinion, you mean that of R. Shaul Yisraeli.

  2. Just found out about your blog courtesy of Rationalist Judaism--Wow! I love it! Keep 'em coming!