George A. Sprecace M.D., J.D., F.A.C.P. and Allergy Associates of New London, P.C.

Point and Counterpoint: Abortion and Alternatives - Article 24, for Sunday, February 25, 2007

As announced in late January, we present herewith the first of several viewpoints on similar topics from spokesmen of the other great Religions. The following, to be published in two parts (on Sunday, Feb. 18 & 25) is offered by Rabbi Carl Astor of Congregation Beth El. We offer him our sincere thanks for his participation. - .both here & at a planned public seminar.


In Hebrew we have an expression "al regel shat" which means "on one leg". It means "briefly". I am going to make a few comments here about Jewish positions on several vital issues. It would be impossible to elaborate on each issue in such a small space, so my hope is to convey a general picture & perhaps stimulate further, more comprehensive discussion.

ABORTION: Many people believe that Judaism has no objections to abortion. This is untrue.
Judaism believes in the sacredness of life, especially human life, & even potential human life. Thus, abortion is not condoned except in certain extreme situations, such as rape or incest or when the mother's life is in danger. The general principles are: a) the fetus is just that, a fetus, until the head has emerged. Its status is an appendage of the mother, not a separate life. b) The mother's life takes precedence over the life of the fetus ~, if the fetus threatens the life of the mother, it must be removed, much as one would amputate an arm or leg if gangrene threatened the life of the person. c) Based on a critical Biblical verse (Lev.21:22) the destruction of a fetus, although an illegal act, is not tantamount to murder. Whether or not this could be considered "pro choice" depends on one's definition of "choice". It does not mean that any individual has the right to determine that elective abortion is sanctioned under Jewish law, but at the same time one does have the right to act in accordance with Jewish law or not. Much as with the observance of the Sabbath or the dietary laws, Judaism has many rules & regulations, & people choose whether or not to observe them

BIRTH CONTROL: Judaism, while strongly encouraging its adherents to have children & to raise families, is not opposed to birth control. The first commandment in the Torah is "you shall be fruitful & multiply". (Gen 1:28) but there is no set number of children one must have. There is no linkage between birth control & destruction of life since until the egg is fertilized by the sperm, it is not considred to be a life. However, in accord with the position on abortion explained above, abortion is not considered to be an acceptable form of birth control.


Where last week's comments dealt with issues at the beginning of human life, the following deal with end-of-life matters.

EUTHANASIA: Once again, Judaism considers life to be sacred, so it is not permissible to end a life, either by suicide or euthanasia_ The two anecdotes that best define the Jewish position are: 1) If a person falls or jumps from a building and is falling to a certain death, it is still considered murder if someone shoots him or her even a fraction of a second before the individual hits the ground. 2) Once when a beloved rabbi was dying, his students began praying for him non-stop. It is said that the prayers kept the rabbi alive although he was in great pain. A woman who was caring for the rabbi could not bear to see him in such pain so she went to the roof of the house and threw down a large ceramic vase. When it shattered, the noise momentarily distracted the students and in that moment when their prayers were interrupted, the rabbi died. The verdict was that she had acted properly. In brief then, Judaism condemns any act which actively causes a person's demise such as the administering of lethal drugs or suffocation. On the other hand it is permitted to remove any impediments to the natural process of dying. This can get complicated since the boundary between active and passive actions is not always well-defined and needs to be further elaborated; however the principles are as I have explained.

SUICIDE: Judaism is firmly opposed to suicide. Our lives are not really ours to take at will, but all life belongs to God. One who commits suicide is not permitted to be buried within a Jewish cemetery_ That having been said, even books in Talmudic times there was an understanding that one who takes one's life is often so seriously troubled or disturbed as to not be in control of one's actions. Great latitude was therefore granted to instances of mental illness or compulsion. The definition of suicide was limited to one who takes one's life in front of witnesses and leaves a note or makes a statement clearly expressing his or her intention to commit suicide. Otherwise it is considered to be accidental or unintentional. Even at the very last moment a person can change his or her mind, but it might be too late to avoid death. Thus, very few people are this deemed to have conclusively committed suicide according to Jewish law. The summaries above are just that, summaries. Positions are far more nuanced and complex, but at least one can see an approach of Judaism towards these critcal ethical issues: a respect for human life and a compassionate approach to human suffering. There are places where the Jewish position differs from Catholicism and places where it does not. I believe that both religions honor the same basic principles, but interpret and apply them differently. I do hope that what I have written, brief and inadequate as it may be, will stimulate further thought and discussion. The POINT AND COUNTERPOINT offering (#25) to appear on Sunday, March 4, will present the viewpoints of Protestantism on the same issues of life, dying and death.

Peter Moore, PhD    George A. Sprecace, M.D., J.D.

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