Jonathan Sacks’s Moderate Stance on Abortion

December 6, 2021 | Gil Student
About the author: Gil Student is an Orthodox rabbi, the editor of, and the book editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine.

While perhaps unrepresentative of popular opinion, American public discourse about abortion tends to pose an argument between two extremes: either the fetus is a “clump of cells” and its destruction a morally neutral act, or abortion is no different at all from postnatal murder. Although the former position has been endorsed by some non-Orthodox rabbis, and the latter by some Orthodox ones, the late British chief rabbi Jonathan Sacks made the case for an intermediate approach in his commentary to Exodus 21, which discusses a man’s tortious accidental termination of a pregnancy. Gil Student explains:

Rabbi Sacks focuses on the importance of tradition and interpretation. The talmudic sages (Tractate Sanhedrin 79a) interpret the word ason regarding a pregnant woman who is struck (Exodus 21:23) as referring to damage, a fatal accident. From this interpretation, it emerges that a fetus does not have the legal status of a person, and causing a woman to miscarry is not a capital offense. In contrast, [the 1st-century BCE Jewish philosopher] Philo of Alexandria, under the influence of the Greek translation of the Torah, interprets ason as referring to the fetus’s form. If the fetus is not yet formed, then causing a woman to miscarry is not a capital offense. If the fetus is formed, then abortion is murder.

Sacks briefly traces these two interpretations through history. Jews traditionally followed the Talmud while Christians adopted Philo’s understanding. The result is that Judaism generally does not consider abortion to be murder while Christianity considers it to be murder once the fetus is formed, however that is defined. This distinction is important not only in terms of the nature of the offense of abortion but also regarding how we determine our values. Judaism takes it values from the Oral Torah, the rabbinic tradition recorded in Talmud and midrash, and transmitted throughout the generations by its leading lights.

But Sacks adds an important caveat, which Student quotes:

This is not to say that Jewish and Catholic views on abortion are completely different. In practice, they are quite close, especially when compared to the cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome, or the secular West today, where abortion is widespread and not seen as a moral evil at all. Judaism permits abortion only to save the life of the mother or to protect her from life-threatening illness. A fetus might not be a person in Jewish law, but it is a potential person, and must therefore be protected. However, the theoretical difference is real. In Judaism, abortion is not murder. In Catholicism, it is.

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