No authorities, however, allow abortion as a convenience, as a form of delayed contraception, or because of economic hardship.

When does the fetus attain its special status? This, too, is debated. In a different area of Jewish law, a fetus prior to 40 days after conception has no significance. Some important scholars carry this over to the arena of abortion. At times of great need (including advising a quick D&C for a rape victim), they will be more lenient before a fetus reaches the 40-day benchmark. Interestingly, this has not prevented important contemporary decisors from ruling leniently in the opposing direction. With the great strides in fetal surgical intervention, some have ruled that if such surgery were indicated for a young fetus even prior to is 40th day, the Sabbath could be violated to save it. (These same decisors do have a lower limit. They do not sanction violating the Sabbath for a fertilized ovum that awaits implantation in a host mother.)

Most striking about Jewish tradition's treatment of abortion is the sheer number of moral and ethical issues that are addressed in hundreds of years of discussion. The difference between potential life and actual life; autonomy versus the notion that a person's body and individuality are not one's own possessions, but entrusted to a person by G-d; the importance of elevating and sanctifying sexuality - all of these issues are treated by rigorous legal thought, rather than armchair speculation. To people who see the relationship between man and G-d as bound by law and responsibility, this is profoundly satisfying.

 

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M Irmas Adjunct Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is the founding editor of Cross-Currents.com, a blog of Orthodox Jewish thought. Rabbi Adlerstein received his rabbinic ordination in 1977 from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva (Rabbinical Seminary of America) in New York.