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When Life Begins

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The anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision known as Roe v. Wade prompted many news outlets and bloggers to discuss abortion this week.

This essay, in particular, inspired me to examine my personal history—especially my child-bearing years, which constitute more than three decades of my life—and to share my views on abortion.  As a Jew, I believe that life is sacred, and that it begins when a person’s head has fully emerged from its mother’s birth canal and s/he draws an independent breath. This legal position is presented in the Mishnah (200 C.E.) and upheld through the centuries by legal giants such as Maimonides. The fetus has no legal rights as a person, and if its mother’s life is endangered—even during labor or the act of giving birth—it is prevented from being born.*

NPR’s Morning Edition aired an excellent overview of the topic, titled “Roe v. Wade Turns 40, But Abortion Debate Is Even Older,” which highlighted the legal history of and the debate surrounding abortion in the United States.  I was interested in the remarks made by Michael Taylor, executive director of the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment, which supports a fetus’ right-to-life because, in their opinion, life begins at conception. This prevalent Christian, or Catholic, belief stands in direct opposition to the views of the Sages who established Jewish laws on abortion.

The proposed Human Life Amendment is troubling to me—a faithful, religiously observant Jew and law-abiding American citizen—because it threatens my rights protected by the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” An amendment determining that life begins at conception strikes me as the establishment of Christian doctrine as law.  What if a pregnant Jewish woman discovers she is carrying a fetus with Tay-Sachs or Canavan disease, and she wishes to terminate her pregnancy that will result in a genetically-defective child who will die before the age of five? I have counseled women in awful, tragic situations to consult with their doctors about their options; options that are legally sanctioned by Jewish law but presumably wouldn’t be legal in a post-Human Life Amendment United States.  I simply cannot imagine being forced to carry such a pregnancy to term.

Any woman who has been pregnant and heard the fetal heartbeat through a monitor or saw its flashing light on a sonogram screen cannot deny that life grows inside her.  I know this is true.  I also know that—until the end of its gestation—the fetus’ life is not viable outside the protective walls of the womb; not viable without the sustenance of nutrients and oxygen provided by the placenta; not viable without a living host, without its mother. And I know that only the host—in consultation with trusted religious and medical authorities—can decide what must be done to preserve her life.

In the forty years since Roe v. Wade, I’ve been pregnant four times. One pregnancy ended with what is medically termed a “missed abortion;” that is when the fetal heartbeat ceases but the fetus is not expelled from the womb in a “spontaneous abortion,” so it must be extracted by a procedure that is identical to those routinely performed in first trimester abortions. Although I mourned the loss of potential life, my religious beliefs provided great comfort to me during this challenging period of a failed pregnancy.

I’m not a political activist and have never been inclined to join protest movements. But 25 years ago, when an attempt to repeal Roe v. Wade was afoot, I marched in Washington.  And a few months ago, when it seemed that a so-called “pro-life” congressman (who supported the passage of a Human Life Amendment) might become Vice President, I voted to protect my rights and the rights of my daughters, who are approaching their child-bearing years.

The debate about when life begins has been raging since before my life began and probably will not be quelled in the coming decades.  So I pray with all of my Jewish American woman’s strength that both the sanctity of the First Amendment and the sanctity of the lives of women will continue to be cherished in this country.

 


* The language of Mishnah Ohalot 7:6 is quite graphic; you will find it quoted in this article on the Fetus in Jewish Law. In addition, I highly recommend this one on The Parameters of Abortion in Judaism; both are from MyJewishLearning.com.

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Comments (5)

Perfectly and sensitively stated. I stand with you, sister.

Thank you! If we have to join a protest march in our nation’s capital, I will be happy to share the driving with you.

Pam u are a light of sanity on a dark issue. Much respect.

Thank you, my friend. It truly pains me how people are so polarized over this issue.

Pamela, I stand beside you.

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