The abortion debate took center stage as a draft opinion that would strike down Roe v. Wade was leaked from the U.S. Supreme Court in May 2022, a victory for the long-running conservative movement against abortion rights.
As many anti-abortion campaigners, including evangelical Christians, have expressed strong opposition to abortion on religious grounds, some Jewish religious leaders weighed in saying that banning abortion is a violation of their religious freedom.
Indeed, Judaism is the strongest proponent among the major Abrahamic faiths, with few or no limits to carrying out the procedure, although views differ between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism. According to the U.S-based National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish law very clearly prioritizes the choice of the pregnant individual:
No, life does not begin at conception under Jewish law. Sources in the Talmud note that the fetus is “mere water” before 40 days of gestation. Following this period, the fetus is considered a physical part of the pregnant individual’s body, not yet having life of its own or independent rights. The fetus is not viewed as separate from the parent’s body until birth begins and the first breath of oxygen into the lungs allows the soul to enter the body.
Many Jewish rabbis have pointed to one story in the Torah that they argue indicates the fetus is not considered a person. As detailed in this Jezebel article that discusses a hypothetical case where two men accidentally push a woman, causing her to miscarry:
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
The common interpretation of this verse is that the men did not commit murder because the fetus is not a person, the primary concern centered on the well-being of the injured person, the woman.
Rabbi Andrue Kahn told Jezebel that women’s rights have been a fundamental part of the Reform movement of Judaism since its founding in the 1800s. "In the actual lived experience of the vast majority of Reform Jews, which is the most numerous sect of Judaism in America, regardless of what the legal briefs say, there should be full freedom of choice for women, period," he said. He added that even though not all Jews support abortion, the most conservative and Orthodox sects do not permit it to be outlawed.
And a Pew Research Center review of a range of religious literature shows that the support for abortion rights is not just limited to Reform Judaism, but also to Conservative Judaism.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis released a statement after the draft leak from the Supreme Court, urging the justices not to restrict abortion rights:
Abortion access is part of comprehensive healthcare. Overturning Roe v. Wade will not stop abortions. What it will do is increase the occurrence of illegal, dangerous abortions, thereby causing unnecessary deaths and suffering. We know that low-income women and all gender non-conforming individuals who can become pregnant will suffer the greatest burden of state abortion bans triggered by a reversal of Roe v. Wade.
Moreover, the decision apparently contemplated by a Supreme Court majority would violate the religious freedom of Jews and others whose religious traditions, like ours, permit abortion.
Orthodox Jewish groups are opposed to abortion in most cases, arguing that it is only permitted when the mother's life is in danger. After New York state expanded abortion rights in the 2019 Reproductive Health Act, a number of groups spoke out in opposition. The Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) a coalition of Orthodox rabbis said:
Jewish law opposes abortion, except in cases of danger to the mother. Most authorities consider feticide an act of murder; others deem it an act akin to the murder of potential life. There are Jewish legal scholars who permit, in extenuating circumstances, the abortion of compromised fetuses.
The RCA maintains that “abortion on demand,” even before twenty-four weeks from the commencement of pregnancy, is forbidden. There is no sanction to permit the abortion of a healthy fetus when the mother’s life is not endangered. The RCA supports that part of the law that permits abortion, even at a late stage, when the mother’s life is at risk.
They added that they are not opposed to abortion in all cases, compared with evangelical groups, and it would also be considered if it would prevent serious psychological harm to the mother.
Other religious faiths also don’t have the same hardline approach as the many strands of evangelical Christianity. In Islam, there is no clear ruling or position on abortion, though many Muslims argue that it is forbidden except in certain cases, particularly if pregnancy would put the mother’s life in danger. Different schools of Muslim law have different views, and the Quran does not explicitly refer to abortion. Most American Muslim advocates argue against the abortion ban in the United States. An open letter by a coalition of Muslim groups said:
By defining life as beginning at conception, this law adopts the religious belief of some Christians who believe that all abortion is immoral. But not all American Christians, nor Americans of other religions, share this belief. In other words, by picking one religious belief and enshrining it into law, Mississippi is infringing on constitutional protections for American religious diversity. An interfaith coalition recently made this argument in an amicus curiae brief to the Supreme Court, arguing that Mississippi is trying to use state power to impose a particular view of when life begins, thus stifling “the diversity of views within and across religious traditions” on the morality of terminating a pregnancy. [...]
It is clear that reasonable minds — including pious, God-conscious minds — can differ on the morality of abortion. Sharia itself, with its diversity of fiqh opinions on the topic, allows Muslims to follow different rules about the permissibility and timing of abortion. The centuries-long tradition of Muslim lands hosting religious minorities reminds us that we should not assume that what might be prohibited for Muslims is what the state should prohibit for every inhabitant.
According to a recent Pew poll, White evangelicals are generally the most opposed to legal abortion, but across a range of Christian subgroups, many see gray areas and say it should be permitted in some cases, and not in others.
Abortion views differ widely across religions, and it is clear that not all religions are against it. At the same time, within each religion, there are a range of sects and religious scholars who differ on their views on abortion, many of whom prefer to look at it on a case by case basis.