Jewish Leaders Take Stance on Abortion

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Members of the Greater Philadelphia section of the National Council of Jewish Women at the Oct. 2 Bans Off Our Bodies March appear in Philadelphia. | Courtesy of the Greater Philadelphia Section of the National Council of Jewish Women

If a Jewish person was asked to vote for one of two candidates in an election — one who advocated for abortion on demand or one who banned abortion entirely — medical ethics expert Dr. Daniel Eisenberg said that halachically, Jews should vote for the candidate who allowed abortions on demand.

American Jews are not being asked to make this black-and-white decision, but the U.S. Supreme Court is heavily weighing the question of allowing abortion in the United States. In July, the court will convene to decide whether to uphold Mississippi’s 2018 law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy and potentially to strike the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which granted federal protection to women seeking abortions.

Republicans and Christian establishments have led the movement to restrict abortion access, but they are not the only ones with voices on the matter. Many area Jewish leaders would agree with Eisenberg’s ethical argument.


“We feel very strongly, as most of the Jewish community does, about the importance of women’s reproductive freedom,” said Elizabeth (Liz) Downing, the vice president of advocacy for the Greater Philadelphia section of the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Greater Philadelphia NCJW signed on to an amicus brief for the case of Allegheny Reproductive Health Center et al v. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services being heard before the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in 2019. The case argued that the abortion coverage ban violates the Equal Rights Amendment and the equal protection provisions of the
Pennsylvania Constitution.

Members of the Greater Philadelphia NCJW participated in the Philadelphia Bans Off Our Bodies March on Oct. 2. 

“The mother should have the freedom to decide what medical procedures will work best for her,” Downing said. “Every woman should be able to decide that for herself.”

Downing has advocated for greater abortion access since before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision occurred.

“I have many friends who had back-alley abortions when I was in college before Roe v. Wade, and many of them were never able to have children after that,” Downing said. “I don’t want to go back there, and I don’t want the young people today to ever have to know what that feels like to not have those services available if and when they need them.”

Local politicians have also made their thoughts on abortion known. If Roe v. Wade was overturned, decisions around abortion access would return to the local level, putting an obligation on state politicians to have these conversations.

“Abortion, sadly, has become a lightning rod that’s used as a political sword to weaponize the political sphere and gain political points rather than being treated as thoughtful policy,” said Democratic state Rep. Jared G. Solomon, who represents the 202nd Legislative District, which includes
Philadelphia County. 

Like Downing, Solomon emphasizes the gestational parent’s right to choose whether to have an abortion.

According to Ben Waxman, the Democratic state representative candidate for the 182nd House District seat, which represents Center City, there’s “a lot of stigma about [something that] is a medical procedure.” 

Community members have been eager to discuss the topic of abortion with Waxman. 

Waxman’s potential constituency and Solomon’s constituency are both heavily Democratic and Jewish, yet the politicians emphasized the importance of reaching out across the aisle to discuss the contentious topic.

“The most revolutionary thing you can do is have a conversation with someone with different beliefs than you,” Waxman said.

The lack of conversation around abortion in political spaces has made it a polarizing and stigmatized topic. Solomon believes these conversations are difficult but necessary to craft laws that are realistic and driven by values, not political power grabs.

“We’re going to disagree, but we need to be able to have that discussion and a reasonable debate,” Solomon said.

The arguments against abortion have been monopolized by some Christians arguing that life begins at conception, according to Rabbi Abi Weber of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. She said that this view has caused Jewish spiritual leaders to be clear in their ideas about abortion.

“What you’re seeing much more are rabbis, particularly American rabbis, feeling a need to really assert some of these very old Jewish ideas that are different from Christian ideas,” Weber said. 

Jewish leaders have emphasized that although the political obligation of Jews to advocate for abortion access is clear, the personal decision to have an abortion is delicate and complicated.

According to Eisenberg, “A fetus is considered to be a human being minus epsilon,” meaning being the closest to, without actually being considered, a born human being.

Because of this consideration, the life of the person carrying the fetus takes precedence over the fetus itself. Therefore, an abortion is permissible if the gestational parent’s health is in danger.

Weber believes that individuals need to consider mental health needs as part of the gestational parent’s overall health. Therefore, if the gestational parent is suicidal, or factors from the pregnancy place a severe strain on the person’s mental health, abortion would also be permissible.

Jewish thoughts on abortion have changed over time. After the Holocaust, Jews took a much more conservative stance on abortion due to interest in Jewish futurity, Weber said.

However, Waxman, who considers himself a progressive, said that Jewish experiences with authoritarian powers in the past have made some Jews more cautious of government restrictions, including for abortion.

Like most considerations in Judaism, although clear halachic guidelines to follow exist, each scenario for an abortion must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Any government restrictions on abortion, Weber and Eisenberg said, would deny this process to take place — a process which is personal, painful and profoundly complicated.

“I know the experience of having potential life grow in my body, and there’s no doubt that it’s sacred, beautiful and special and can be such a wonderful experience for so many people,” Weber said. “And having been through that experience, I’m all the more aware of the toll that it can take on people. As a society, we need to be focusing on the person carrying the child.”

srogelberg@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0741

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m glad to hear Jewish voices, though I don’t think the Supreme Court will hear them. The basic Jewish position seems to be that a fetus is a fetus and a baby is a baby, and that each case is different, but I doubt anyone will be convinced by the wisdom of our ancient tradition. I suspect that today, as patriarchy weakens, men in fear cling to their former power over women. Only a pregnant man should offer an opinion on this topic unless asked.

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