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Judaism on Sex, Birth Control and Abortion (and Why Pro-Life Laws are Unconstitutional)

Robin Alexander

Posted on September 11, 2018 09:38

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A rabbi, a minister and a priest are discussing when life begins. The priest insists that it begins at conception, thereby precluding all abortion. The minister counters with the belief that life begins when you can detect a heartbeat. After much heated argument they turn to the rabbi for his opinion: “Life begins when the kids go to college and the dog dies.” If only it were that simple (although there is some truth to the punchline).

The anti-abortion/birth control sentiment in this country stems from Christianity. The First Amendment “prevents Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion.” This was extended to the States via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Even if every American were Christian, we don't legislate based on religious beliefs. To make it even worse (shades of unconstitutionality?), not every religion believes the same things.

The Jewish perspective:

·         Women are not brood-cows: In Mishnah Yevamot, Jewish law states that women are not obligated to be fruitful and multiply, but men are. This contradiction is typically Jewish and, I believe, based on an uncanny grasp of humanity’s inherent complexities and ironies. It also demonstrates why no one advises their friends to hire an evangelical attorney.

This puzzle was unraveled for me by an eminent orthodox rabbi in 1983. Pregnancy and birth pose dangerous health risks. If the sanctity of life is held dear above all else (not just fetal life), you cannot compel a woman give birth. How does a couple reconcile this? First, the husband had better be extraordinary to his wife. Second, he must be eminently grateful after delivery, for his wife has allowed him to fulfill his obligation.

·         The Jewish celebration of sex says “yes” to birth control: The ketubah includes another obligation for the husband, one that actually recognizes that women enjoy sex. “A man has a duty to give his wife sex regularly and to ensure that sex is pleasurable for her.”

Sex is a sharing of mind, heart and body, whose primary purpose is to reinforce the loving marital bond between husband and wife. Any kind of sex is considered “kosher” so long as it is mutually pleasurable.

The acknowledgement that sex delights both partners throughout life, and is not meant only for procreation, leads to the conclusion that birth control is permissible. The question is which method is allowable. Since destroying or blocking passage of the seed is not permitted, the pill and IUD are considered acceptable.

·         According to Jewish law, life begins at birth: Where the life of the mother is in danger, abortion is actually required. Prior to 40 days, the Talmud likens the fetus to “mere water.” Elsewhere, the Talmud considers the fetus part of its mother, as it is dependent on her for its life. This view echoes a pro-choice position.

On the other hand, Judaism does not support abortion without serious cause and there is room for interpretation here. Having said that, I know a married woman who was extremely distraught when she discovered her fourth pregnancy; an orthodox rabbi told her she could abort.

I recently asked a Southern Baptist Texan why she felt it was okay to vote for all things anti-abortion, when not every religion shares the same viewpoint. She sheepishly replied, “We’re told to vote our conscience.” Am I detecting insufficient spine to clarify her position? Unusual for a Texas woman, but there it is.

They are, however, awfully good at following orders.

Robin Alexander

Posted on September 11, 2018 09:38

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Source: NYT
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