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My Abortion, My Miscarriage, and My Right To Have My Own Feelings

Women are entitled to a wide range of emotions about their bodies and fertility. But under Jewish law, the rules are clear.

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Students from the University of Texas hold signs during a rally in favor of abortion rights Nov. 24, 2003, in Austin, Texas. (Jana Birchum/Getty Images)
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The Torah and Talmud commentator Rashi wrote of the fetus, “lav nefesh hu”—it is not a person. The Talmud says “ubar yerech imo”—the fetus is as the thigh of its mother. It’s part of her body, not a separate human entity. These statements derive from a passage in Exodus saying that if two men are fighting and one winds up pushing a pregnant woman and causing her to miscarry, that man needs to pay a fine, but it’s not “a life for a life.” Jewish law interprets this to mean that the fetus doesn’t have the same legal status as the mother, a full-fledged, autonomous human being. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice adds that the legal principle that the fetus is part of the woman’s body is backed up by one of our tradition’s many delightful rules about livestock. In the Talmud it says that if a guy sells a cow he later learns is pregnant, he can’t get further compensation from the guy he sold the cow to, because that wee bovine fetus is part of the cow’s body. And then there’s the rule about how if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, you don’t do a separate conversion ceremony for the fetus, because it’s part of her. The RCRC also discusses the texts that call a fetus that threatens a woman’s life a rodef, a pursuer, that she must be saved from. Of course, for anti-choice people, there’s always the question of how threatening that pursuer actually is. Do we need proof that she’d die in childbirth, or is it sufficient that she might kill herself later? Exactly how depressed does she have to be to warrant an abortion?

Some rabbis—mostly Orthodox ones—do not think any reason but an actual physical threat to a woman’s life is a valid reason for abortion. Some rabbis—including some Orthodox ones—would still argue that a woman’s emotional health is a valid reason for abortion. There is diversity of opinion. And although nearly 75 percent of the American Jewish community is pro-choice, even spiritual leaders who wouldn’t legislate against abortion aren’t entirely supportive of women, you know, having abortions. I literally gasped at the quote from a Conservative rabbi in Glausiusz’s article on abortion rituals saying that if a woman “has to terminate a pregnancy due to her own physical and emotional health crisis, or because she was raped, or because the fetus was terminally ill,” then acknowledging the event with a ritual might be all right, but only in “one of those regrettable instances when one terminates a pregnancy for responsible and defensible reasons.”

There are two problems with that perspective. One is that a rabbi is a spiritual leader; it’s hard to feel spiritual and pastoral support from someone who you suspect thinks your choice is irresponsible and indefensible. Because when you know he thinks other women’s choices are irresponsible and indefensible, it’s legitimate to wonder what he might secretly think of yours. The other issue is, of course, that abortions happen no matter what. (At my 15th college reunion, I chatted with a friend who’d become an OB-GYN and performed abortions as part of her practice. She told me that several of the protesters outside her clinic had come to her for abortions—for themselves or their daughters—and then went right back to protesting.) It would be lovely to get rid of the shame and hypocrisy, the notion that you have to be really, really sad to deserve an abortion, the notion that other people’s abortions are wrong but yours is necessary, the notion that if we just make it exceptionally hard to get an abortion we’ll create a better world for women and children.

Because the second problem with putting up barriers to abortion is that when abortions are illegal, women die. And when abortions are inaccessible (by distance, anti-choice laws, parental notification requirements), unwanted and under-cared-for children are born. (Please don’t get me started on the simplistic “just put it up for adoption” comment. Saying “just put it up for adoption” is like telling me “don’t worry, you’ll get pregnant again” after I miscarried. Yes, this comparison is ironic. But the reasons for the idiocy of the comment are the same: You have no clue about my health, my finances, my relationships, my body.)

I keep coming back to one of the prayers from an abortion ritual discussed in Glausiusz’s story. “May the One who blessed our foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, bless, heal, and renew [woman’s name]. May the Healer give her support and strength, patience of spirit and courage.” To me, it’s striking that this prayer is fitting for both abortion and miscarriage. It invokes the strong women of our tradition, and it asks for what we need to withstand the cruelty—both deliberate and unwitting—of people who presume to know our bodies and lives better than we do.


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My Abortion, My Miscarriage, and My Right To Have My Own Feelings

Women are entitled to a wide range of emotions about their bodies and fertility. But under Jewish law, the rules are clear.

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