In January, New York State passed one of the country’s most permissive abortion laws. Its primary purpose is to uphold the legality of abortion should Roe v. Wade be overturned, but it also loosens restrictions on abortion in certain circumstances. Two Orthodox organizations—the mainstream Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and the ḥaredi Agudath Israel of America—condemned the new law, but some more liberal Orthodox rabbis have dissented. According to the RCA’s statement, “Jewish law opposes abortion, except in cases of danger to the mother. Most authorities consider feticide an act of murder; others deem it an act akin to the murder of potential life.” Even though the RCA “supports that part of the law that permits abortion, even at a late stage, [if] the mother’s life is at risk,” it concluded that the law’s general permissiveness toward abortion is unacceptable.
To this, Ruth Friedman and Shmuel Herzfeld respond:
There is, in fact, nothing new [about the recent legislation], except insofar as it permits abortions after 24 weeks of conception in certain, limited situations that have long been permitted under Jewish law, but which previously were prohibited under New York State law. . . . That is something that we should be happy about. . . .
[Nevertheless], abortion “on-demand” is antithetical to halakhah. Traditional Jewish sources emphatically prohibit recourse to abortion except in exceptional circumstances. But traditional Jewish law also clearly diverges from traditional Christian dogma, considering it unnecessary and unhelpful to define life’s beginning at conception, [instead] allowing for its judicious use when halakhah demands it.
Daniel Korobkin of the RCA writes in his rebuttal:
What is clear halakhically is that all Orthodox [authorities] forbid abortion unless there is some degree of danger to the mother’s life. A very large number (I hesitate to say “most” because in a world where every rabbi has an equal vote, that word is largely moot) of 20th-century authorities have also ruled that once the fetus is viable—that is, capable of living outside the womb—aborting the fetus is tantamount to homicide. These authorities include: Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, and Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach.
This does not mean that halakhah absolutely forbids late-term abortion. It does mean, however, that for a very large body of authorities, one would have to justify an act of killing a fetus in order to perform a late-term abortion. Such justification can indeed be made when the mother’s life is in danger. The new act, however, is overly liberal in making allowances for the sake of the mother’s health and also gives excessive latitude to those making such a determination.
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