Monday, February 22, 2021

Abortion Rights and Religious Rights

Reconstructionist Rabbi Megan Doherty
I have nothing personal against Reconstructionist Rabbi Megan Doherty. In fact she seems to pretty knowledgeable about Jewish Law. Which doesn’t surprise me. As I understand it, Reconstructionism is one of the more ‘observant forms of Judaism. 

Reconstructionist Judaism is an offshoot of the Conservative movement. It was founded one by of the  the Conservative movement’s pioneers, Mordechai Kaplan. Although encouraging observance, Reconstructionism does not believe in God other than it being the sum of all natural processes that allow people to become self-fulfilled. 

Needless to say, belief in God is the sine qua non of Judaism. Not believing in God is not only nonsense – it is unmitigated heresy! Observance without God is meaningless.  Reconstructionism redefines Judaism as a civilization rather than a religious belief system. Which nevertheless must include observance in order for it to be perpetuated. 

It is true that observance is necessary for that reason.. Without God, however, who cares if it is perpetuated? But I digress. My point here is to explain why Rabbi Doherty knows so much about Halacha and to nonetheless dismiss any religious authority she might want to assert. Even if we ignore the fact that that Orthodox Judaism does not recognize woman as rabbis. (For reasons way beyond the scope of this post.)

The issue at hand is Ohio’s new restrictive abortion law. Which is described in Rabbi Doherty's article

Ohio has a post-viability abortion ban that states that no abortion may be provided after viability unless two physicians certify in writing, as summarized by NARAL Pro-Choice America, that it is necessary to preserve the pregnant person’s life or to prevent a “serious risk of the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function” of the pregnant person.  

Rabbi Doherty asserts that this is a violation of her religious rights since Judaism does allow abortion in certain limited cases. It is not considered murder under Jewish law. And during the first 40 days after conception the fetus is considered water. 

It is for this reason that I have always favored legalized abortion.  I believe the procedure should be available to us when we need it without the need to go through any hoops and hurdles. 

That does not however mean that I think it should be used on demand as a means of birth control. That is why I sympathize with the pro life position – even if I don’t agree with their goal of outlawing it. 

Aborting a fetus is not murder. But it is not permissible either except under certain circumstances. Circumstances that are more or less in concert with Ohio’s new law, that allows abortions to save the life of the mother. 

Whether this law might differ somewhat with Halacha in certain circumstances might be a problem. But the idea that there can be no law at all restricting abortions gives license to abort a potential life as a means of post facto birth control. If we want to honor the sanctity of life there is every reason to limit the outer limits of abortion. 

One more thing. As part of her argument, Rabbi Doherty makes the following point:

Jewish law has evolved and continues to do so, but these two concepts -- that the fetus is not a person, and the life of the pregnant person take precedence -- continue to inform and shape Jewish legal and ethical conversations about abortion. 

The latter part of her comment is absolutely true. But he former is not. Jewish law does not evolve. It is immutable. This does not mean that innovation doesn’t affect our behavior. It does. We apply Halacha to each innovation as it develops in order to know how to deal with it. 

So that when for example the light bulb was invented, we needed to know what Halacha tells us about it’s use on Shabbos. That is what legitimate Poskim do. They study the technology until they fully understand it and then apply Halacha.  We then proceed to use that new technology within those Halachic guidelines. We did not change the Halacha to permit it on Shaboos.  

Back to abortion rights. The bottom line for me is a sort of synthesis to keep abortion legal but at the same time to recognize that there is sanctity to the life of a fetus. That a just society recognizes that is a good thing. We ought to therefore look at any proposed  abortion legislation with those two principles in mind. Whether the Ohio law goes too far or not is beyond my paygrade. But I salute a political system that at least tries to have that kind of balance.