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Jewish World Review
Nov. 5, 2003
/20 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764
By Rabbi Avi Shafran
One would expect, considering their compassionate social agendas and track records championing the rights of the powerless, that the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah would be the very last groups to promote the unfettered right to snuff out fetal life. Instead, the bigotry watchdog group and the Jewish women's organization both resolutely support not only such a right but even, apparently, the right to kill a child who is already born.
For that is precisely what the "partial-birth abortion " legislation currently on President Bush's desk is about. Despite the intense and concerted efforts of some to misrepresent the bill, its language is stark and clear. The bill prohibits any overt act "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire... head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
Yet, Abraham Foxman, the ADL's national director, contends that the legislation "wrongly intrudes on an individual's most personal decisions" and that "the government should not interfere in matters of individual conscience." This, despite the fact that the ADL is hardly shy about exposing and combating personal decisions born of individual conscience that cause harm to others.
For her part, and continuing her group's ill-considered foray into Jewish legal decisorship, Hadassah president June Walker pronounced that the bill "undermines Jewish values" since "the preservation of a woman's health is the standard in determining when an abortion is permissible."
She grievously misleads. To be sure, the Talmudic sources are clear that the life of a pregnancy-endangered Jewish mother takes precedence over that of her unborn child when there is no way to preserve both lives. And, while the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother's health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited mother's "right to make her own reproductive choices," the upshot of Roe v. Wade, which Hadassah enthusiastically endorses.
And Hadassah's bemoaning of the lack of a "health of the mother" exception to the partial birth abortion bill is a red (schmaltz) herring. Congress' findings include the conclusion of medical experts that the procedure banned by the legislation awaiting the President's signature is never necessary to preserve a mother's health.
What is more, and more germane, the procedure is not really abortion at all but rather the dispatching of a born baby. The child, according to both Jewish law and any reasonable person's judgment, is already born its head, or most of its body, has emerged into the world when its skull is punctured.
Why, then, the clamorous opposition? Because the measure, when signed into law, will represent the first chink in Roe v. Wade's armor, the first time since 1973 that a federal law limiting abortion in any way will be on the books.
The partial birth brouhaha, in other words, is essentially a symbolic battle. Few if any unwanted fetuses will be saved by the ban. What the legislation, however, will do in fact has already done is force people to think anew about the fragile beginnings of human life. Which, in turn, may help them realize that the crux of the abortion issue is not "a woman's right to choose" at all, but rather to what extent to value the life of a fetus.
Most reasonable people would agree that a woman has no right to choose to kill her newborn, even if it was born prematurely and even if it is still connected by its umbilical cord to the placenta within her body. Whence, then, her right to choose to kill that same being as it floats in a bag of amniotic fluid a mere moment earlier?
According to Jewish law, there is in fact such a right, at least at times, when the mother's life and the child's life cannot both be preserved. But that is a matter of weighing adult life against fetal life (potential life, almost-life, call it what you will), not a matter of "personal choice." And moving the discussion from the realm of "choice" to that of "lives" how to value them and what to do when two clash - is precisely what the pro-abortion movement seeks at all costs to avoid.
But it is or should be the national discussion, at least for a culture that claims to value life. Contorting the abortion issue into one of a woman's "right to choose," as has been done for fully three decades, predicates it on the contention that a fetus's life has no inherent worth at all.
Where such self-deception can all too easily lead is evident in what goes on in places like China and India. The Chinese government uses a number of means to discourage couples from having more than one child and a cultural preference for boys has resulted in widespread abortion (and, according to UC-Davis China specialist G. William Skinner, "female infanticide on a grand scale'' close to 800,000 baby girls abandoned or killed in a single region during the years 1971-80 alone).
Indian census commissioner J. K. Banthia recently estimated that several million female fetuses have been aborted in his country over the past two decades because ultrasound scans showed they were female and Indian parents prefer boys. What those parents exercised was choice. Is being unwilling to shoulder the burden of a child the reason for many if not most abortions in America today somehow more honorable that preferring a son to a daughter?
As is happens, there is in fact a choice pertinent to the abortion issue, and it happens to come right from the Jewish tradition, from the Jewish Bible's book of Deuteronomy.
"I have placed before you," the Creator informs us through Moses, "life and death, the blessing and the curse."
"Choose life," the verse continues, "so that you and your seed will live."
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JWR contributor Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.
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