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Jewish Lunch

A Report by Allison Ristaino '14

On Wednesday students gathered in the Bodman lounge to hear a discussion on Jewish Attitudes Toward Abortion and Birth Control by Jewish advisor, Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser. Rhonda Shapiro-Rieser wanted to make it clear that not all religions have the same feelings about abortion and birth control. Shapiro-Rieser stated that in the Jewish world, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal Judaism, hold views on abortion and birth control that are in agreement with the current laws in this country. Birth control is a right and a woman has freedom of choice on the abortion issue. Shapiro-Rieser then spoke about the Traditional Orthodox views on abortion and birth control and where they were based. Much of Judaism is based in belief and religious law. Shapiro-Rieser brought a volume of Talmud (circa 300-500 CE) and a volume of the Tur, (circa 1300 CE) a law code, as illustrations of a religious law books. There is often tension between belief and law. While Jewish belief holds that every individual life is sacred, Jewish law must deal with how one weighs one life against another if there is a conflict. According to Jewish beliefs, the soul of a child does not enter the body until the crown of the head has come out of the mother. For this reason, those practicing Judaism don’t see the fetus as a baby, but as a part of the mother. For this reason, if the mother’s life or health is at risk, the fetus is seen as another body part that the mother has, such as her leg. In this way, the mother’s life is more important than the baby’s until the baby crowns at birth, which allows more lenient legal decisions on abortion in Judaism.

While the rabbis who decided Jewish law were reluctant to get into issues like ensoulment, when forced they said the fetus is not fully ensouled until the head crowns. At that point, the life of the fetus takes precedence over the life of the mother. Shapiro-Rieser said this is not the case in certain Christian traditions like Catholicism.

The rabbis of the Talmud believed that God told Adam to be fruitful and multiply, not Eve. As a result, the woman has the responsibility to help her husband fulfill the command. But this distinction between who is commanded to be fruitful allows for more leniency with birth control used by women. Though the rabbis did not approve of birth control for convenience, in the case of health the rabbis are more lenient. There are instances in Jewish law where the wife is allowed to use contraception if she does not tell her husband. That way he avoids the sin of intentionally spilling seed needlessly. The leniency in contraception came out of the rabbis view that sex is a positive value in marriage even if it does not lead to children, and that women had sexual rights.

She closed in stating tha in the 1960s and 1970s a woman who was allowed an abortion by a rabbinic court would not have been able to get one in the United States because Jewish views on abortion were not considered. She also recommended David Feldman’s book Marital Relations, Birth Control, and Abortion in Jewish Law if students wanted a resource for further study.