Happy anniversary Roe v. Wade. You are one of the best things that happened in my life!
Yes, today is the 39th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling. On January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court said, in simple terms, that women have a constitutional right to privacy to make decisions about whether to have an abortion. Because this decision involves moral as well as medical considerations, the Court ruled, a woman has the right to consider her personal circumstances and the dictates of her conscience.
Life Before Roe v. Wade
Before Roe v. Wade enshrined the right to privacy into law, and with it a woman’s right to an abortion, America was an even more dangerous place for women – our wives, our daughters, and especially those who lived in the less affluent parts of this country.
Before Roe v. Wade, a woman needing to terminate a pregnancy turned down down dark alleys or into unsanitary “operating rooms” to do what needed to be done. It didn’t matter if the mother’s life was in danger, or if some guy raped her, or if a family member incestuously forced himself on her, abortion was not available to her. Too many faced ostracism by their families. Too many died from medical procedures gone bad.
Before Roe v. Wade, our country forced upon us all – Jews included – a Christian moral perspective which was at odds with our own Jewish tradition. The tyranny of the majority, it was.
When Does Life Begin, for Jews?
You see, for Jews, life does not begin at conception, as Christian theology would have us believe. Jewish biblical scholars have long read the verses from Exodus in the Bible very differently.
Exodus 21:22-25 says:
And if men who are fighting together, and hurt a pregnant woman, so that her fruit departs, and yet no harm follows, the offender shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband demands, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
For us Jews, plainly speaking a fetus is not a life. We read the distinction the Torah makes between “a life for a life,” and “the offender shall surely be fined,” and understand that since the offender has to pay a fine when he causes the loss of the fetus (by miscarriage or spontaneous abortion), this indicates that the fetus is not considered a life.
Why? Simple. Had the fetus been considered by Torah to be a life, the offender would have been required to give up his own life. as Torah teaches, “a life for a life.”. Later scholars argue about precisely when life begins. Many follow the teaching that life begins when the head comes out of the mother’s body.
In Some Cases, Abortion is Required
If we read further in later Jewish texts, we learn that there are cases where an abortion is required: when the fetus is endangering the mother’s life (Mishnah Ohalot 7:.8). And we learn that abortion is permitted whenever carrying the fetus to term would cause “ka-eiv gadol,” great pain (Responsa by Rabbi Jacob Emden).
So for Jews, making abortion illegal would force Jews to transgress the moral laws of our tradition. In the case of a mother whose life is threatened by the fetus, Jewish tradition requires that abortion be available
For Jews, making abortion illegal would limit the moral options for a pregnant Jewish girl. Without an option for safe, accessible, and legal abortion Jews lose their religious freedom to follow our tradition’s moral teachings.
In the Land of Religious Freedom, Jews Should not be Subjected To Christian Morality when it Conflicts with Ours
Why should the Christian view of when life begins receive preferential legal status to our Jewish view? Choice, as the law of the land, allows each religious group to follow its own tradition.
So happy anniversary Roe v. Wade. You are one of the best things that happened in my life!
Since you were enacted, we fathers have once less thing to worry about if our children face an unplanned or dangerous pregnancy.
Since you were enacted, we parents have once less thing to worry about concerning what kind of medical attention our children receive (because it seems that those who oppose choice also seem to be in the opposition when it comes to all sorts of other women-specific medical treatment for women.)
Protecting My Kids and Yours
I have three children of my own and hundreds who are “my kids” by virtue of being members of our synagogue or my campers at our Jewish summer camp. There is plenty enough to worry about without adding back alley abortions.
So thanks Roe v. Wade. You made life safer for our children.
And you ensured that the teachings of our Jewish tradition are honored too.