In America, debates over abortion tend to boil down to “pro-life” or “pro-choice” positions—defined more often than not by religious principles. But traditional Jewish sources take an approach that doesn’t quite fit either term, as Shlomo Brody explains:
Procreation, [in the Jewish view], represents a definitive commandment and is paradigmatic of a general attitude of promoting life. The notion that having an abortion is simply a woman’s [moral] prerogative, based on [an idea of individual moral] autonomy, is entirely absent from traditional Jewish sources. [Furthermore], Jewish law grants moral status to a fetus. For this reason, one is permitted to violate the Sabbath to save its life, even as it would not be permitted in the case of animals, which have a lower moral status. . . .
While Jewish law may grant moral status to this future human being, this does not mean that it equates feticide with murder. If feticide is prohibited, but is not homicide, then what is it? Historically, many halakhic authorities viewed feticide as a lower-level form of manslaughter that is permitted only when it will save the mother’s life. . . .This includes cases of direct physiological danger as well as mental imbalance [that could render a mother] suicidal. Otherwise, abortion remains a very severe offense. . . .
Yet [some] scholars like Jacob Emden (1697-1776) and Ben-Zion Uziel (1890-1953) significantly lowered the severity of the prohibition on abortion, even as they firmly maintained that it is generally forbidden. Some asserted that abortion falls under the general prohibition of battery, while others include it within a general rabbinic proscription of preventing the creation of life. These lenient assessments clearly allow for a broader range of dispensations, including cases in which the pregnancy might aggravate preexisting medical conditions that are not life-threatening. Most famously, [the 20th-century] rabbis Eliezer Waldenberg and Shaul Yisraeli permitted aborting a fetus diagnosed with Tay-Sachs in order to prevent the future suffering of this child and the mental anguish of its parents. Others strongly opposed this ruling. . . .
These significant disagreements create a greater amount of nuance than in other religious traditions that assert that life begins at conception and only allow abortions when the mother’s life is threatened. This is a perfectly cogent position, but not the Jewish one.