Rabbi Dan Ornstein: Religious, Pro-Life And Pro-Choice
Some on the religious right repeatedly make the claim that authentically religious people are pro-life but could never be pro-choice as well. This is a lie. I am religious, I am pro-life and I am pro-choice.
As a religious Jew, I believe the potential for life in every pregnancy is precious, miraculous and holy. No person should ever regard this potential lightly when deciding between continuing and terminating a pregnancy. Traditional Jewish law does not support an ethic of radical human autonomy that places decisions about one’s body exclusively in a person’s hands. This is because all of our bodies belong ultimately to God. However, my tradition also teaches me that, with the help and guidance of her Jewish faith, it is ultimately up to each woman to make the decision about her pregnancy, based upon her physical and mental health needs. Further, Judaism does not posit that a fetus possesses equal status with its mother, a fully living person. If a woman concludes that a pregnancy endangers or is injurious to her health and well-being, she may choose to terminate that pregnancy. Saving her life precedes that of the fetus in her womb. Also, Jewish law is applied on a case-by-case basis, not necessarily on the principle that “one-legal-ruling-fits-all.” Any good Jewish spiritual leader will think long and hard about the person or people standing before him before forbidding or permitting anything. Traditional Judaism does not hold that abortion is permitted under all circumstances. Yet it does hold that the individual woman carrying a pregnancy must be front and center in deciding how to proceed in all circumstances. As a result, legal decisions about abortion rendered over centuries by Judaic scholars -admittedly all men – nonetheless reveal the great capacity of most of them to listen to what women are saying about their own lives.
As a pro-choice feminist, my values derive significantly, though not exclusively, from my Jewish values. A well-known feminist insight teaches that feminism is the radical notion that women are people. This has a powerful precedent in the Jewish Bible’s transformative idea that all human beings are created in God’s image. The idea that we are all created in God’s image has consistently been a fly in the ointment of sexist patriarchy and has goaded people of conscience to try to rectify the profound injustice of women’s inequality. We have come a long way as a society in closing the gap between this ideal and its application, but we still have far to go. As the challenges to Roe v. Wade in a number of states have sadly shown us, the stories and lives of women – their bodily integrity, their moral agency, and their dignity – are of little or no significance to a segment of men in political power. The conflict underlying this culture war is whether or not women are to be trusted with making their own decisions about their bodies in the complicated settings of their lives. My feminist and religious values compel me to learn from the biblical woman of valor, about whom the Bible tells us that she opens her mouth with wisdom. Women can wisely speak for themselves about their bodies and souls, and it is not the business of lawmakers to speak for them.
As an American, I believe firmly that the separation of church and state and freedom of religion are non-negotiable. Our many religious traditions teach different, often conflicting, perspectives on the ethics of terminating a pregnancy. It is the American way that each religion is free to teach its specific moral mandates to its adherents and that each religious person is free to adhere or not adhere to those principles as she so decides and chooses. The repeal of Roe and the passage of restrictive laws denying women access to safe, legal reproductive healthcare would not make us a more just society dedicated to religious freedom. It would only endanger women’s lives while eroding a bedrock foundation of American democracy in the process. As long as no one religion’s values around abortion are shared by all other American religions and citizens, no one religion’s values should ever become the law of the land.
Terminating a pregnancy is something no woman should ever have to do. Would that we lived in a world where the potential sanctity and joy of every yet-to-be-born life could be realized in the births of new children to happy, healthy parents fully prepared for parenthood that is well supported by society. Yet as long as this is not our reality, each woman must be given the full rights, dignity and power to take responsibility for her body, life, family and future as she so decides.
For these, and so many more, complex reasons, I, a religious person, am pro-life and I am pro-choice.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)
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