Responsibility, not Rights
Because Judaism requires abortion in certain instances, any legislation that prevents abortion, even late abortion, is a violation of the free exercise of religion. Were a court to decide that life begins at conception, this would conflict with the Jewish view of the fetus as potential rather than actual life. Again, a violation of religious freedom. In addition, since one of the fundamental understandings of Jewish law is that the majority of the community must be able to live with a ruling, a pragmatic argument in favor of keeping abortion legal is that many women would seek out illegal abortions if that were the only option. Finally, because illegal abortion puts women's lives in danger, Jewish law's prohibition against endangering lives suggests that access to safe and legal abortion remains a Jewish priority.
This entire discussion, while crucial for the understanding of a Jewish perspective on abortion, in some way misses the point. In the real world, abortion is not just a legal question about when life begins or what is "a pursuer." Abortion is connected to the lived experience of individual women who have to decide whether to bear a child. It is ultimately a decision not about rights, but about responsibility. So there are other Jewish values that ought to be part of this discussion. One is that the commandment of pru ur'vu -- "be fruitful and multiply" -- is a blessing. This suggests that when conception takes place within the context of blessing -- a loving and healthy relationship -- procreation is appropriate. Otherwise, as in the case of rape, incest and other abusive sexual relationships, procreation ought not to take place. It also requires that contraception be available to everyone so that the choice of whether and when to bear a child is really a choice.
Another Jewish value is that all human beings are created in the image of God, and it is our responsibility to create a world where every human being is valued and every baby is loved and supported.
Abortion is never an easy decision. But a tradition that values women as well as men, a tradition which teaches that we are all created in the image of God, must give women the choice over whether and when to bear children.
Rabbi Laura Geller is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, California. She is the first woman to be selected to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. A popular teacher and speaker, Rabbi Geller gave the Baccalaureate Speech at Brown University in 1986 and the Ordination Sermon at the Hebrew Union College in 1990, and she was one of the preachers in the celebration of the tercentennial of Yale University. She was the founding Chair of the Beverly Hills Human Relations Commission. Rabbi Geller graduated from Brown University in 1971 and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College in 1976. She was the third woman in the Reform Movement to become a rabbi. She is married to Richard A. Siegel, and she is the mother of Joshua and Elana Goldstein and the step-mother of Andy and Ruth Siegel.