Abortion and the Jewish faith

Op-eds: American Jews are pro-choice and just as "moral" as conservative Christians.

Conservative Catholics and evangelicals often declare that religious liberty in America is under assault, blaming Obamacare for providing free birth control to employees of religious nonprofits as part of their health care and denouncing the Supreme Court for legalizing same-sex marriage. They argue that "forcing" religious business owners to bake a cake for a gay couple, or requiring pharmacists to sell abortion-inducing drugs violates their religious freedom, a principle enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

But some of these same conservative Christians, who are fiercely anti-abortion, want to deny religious freedom to other Christians who do not oppose abortion. An April 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life shows that 66 percent of white mainline Protestants, 52 percent of black Protestants and 54 percent of Catholics say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The attempt by religious conservatives to impose their views on Jewish Americans is the most egregious, however.

Nearly all — 93 percent — of American Jews are pro-choice, according to a 2012 poll on Jewish Values from the Public Religion Research Institute. Even 77 percent of Jewish Republicans are pro-choice. Abortion opponents may claim their position is based on "morality." But the assertion that life begins at conception, the heart of the anti-abortion movement, is a religious-based argument. American Jews are just as "moral" as conservative Christians, and they decidedly do not agree with this claim.

For over 2,000 years, Jews have believed that life begins at birth, not at conception. In the first 40 days, the fetus is considered just fluid, it is not a "nefesh" — a human being. A passage in the Bible (Exodus 21: 22-23) says that if a pregnant woman is injured and miscarries, the person responsible for the miscarriage must pay financial compensation for the loss of the fetus. But this fine is not equal to the penalty that would be imposed for murder since the fetus is not yet alive. The Catholic Church says the commandment — "thou shalt not kill" — applies to a fetus; Jews say it does not.

Not surprisingly, Jewish organizations have been staunch supporters of women's reproductive rights. As far back as the 1930s, the 100 year-old National Council of Jewish Women established birth control clinics in New York City. In 1975, the Union of Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., said the "question of when life begins is a matter of religious belief and not medical or legal fact." The Central Conference of American Rabbis opposes all legislation that would interfere with the "right of a woman or individual family to terminate a pregnancy."

The Jewish consensus on abortion is reflected in Israel, which has some of the world's most liberal abortion laws. Abortions are free for women between 20 and 33 as part of the "health basket" provided by the country's national health care system. Women must appear before a three-person committee, but the committees approve 98 percent of abortions. Even ultra-orthodox Israeli men who want to control women's behavior pay little attention to abortion, focusing instead on telling women to cover their bodies, not sing at public ceremonies and not sit next to orthodox men on buses or airplanes.

As part of their 40-year battle to overturn the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, anti-abortion activists have sought to pass so-called "personhood" laws at the state and federal level. These laws that would define a fertilized egg as a human being entitled to "protection" under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. In fact the Republican party platform includes what is called a "human life amendment to the Constitution" endorsing the personhood campaign.

Conservative Christians can certainly try to convince fellow Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and non-believers that abortion is a sin and that the government must protect fertilized eggs. But the government cannot require Americans to follow the Catholic Church's prohibition against divorce or forbid a woman from using birth control. And neither should it utilize one particular interpretation of Christianity to make a woman bear a child.

Andrea Barron is an adjunct professor of history at George Mason University and an activist for reproductive rights in the Washington D.C. metropolitan area; her email is a.barron@erols.com.

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