Some Key Sources on Abortion (Extended Source Sheet)

A few notes:

  • Remember, as you prepare to teach these texts, that people of many genders can get pregnant--many (but not all) cisgendered women, some non-binary people, some trans men, and some other people whose identities are not reflected in the framework of binary gender. It may be worthwhile to be thoughtful about how you talk about these texts with regards to gender.

  • It may also be helpful to remember that people with a diverse range of sexualities can get pregnant, and that there are many contexts in which those pregnancies may occur--some of which are in the context of marriage, some not, in some cases consent may not have been given, and so forth.

The texts are organized very generally by concept or points of contemporary relevance.

1) The Fetus Does Not Have the Status of Personhood; Causing a Miscarriage Incurs Monetary Damages, Not Capital Punishment for Manslaughter.

(יב) מַכֵּ֥ה אִ֛ישׁ וָמֵ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃
(12) He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death.
(כב) וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃ (כג) וְאִם־אָס֖וֹן יִהְיֶ֑ה וְנָתַתָּ֥ה נֶ֖פֶשׁ תַּ֥חַת נָֽפֶשׁ׃ (כד) עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן יָ֚ד תַּ֣חַת יָ֔ד רֶ֖גֶל תַּ֥חַת רָֽגֶל׃ (כה) כְּוִיָּה֙ תַּ֣חַת כְּוִיָּ֔ה פֶּ֖צַע תַּ֣חַת פָּ֑צַע חַבּוּרָ֕ה תַּ֖חַת חַבּוּרָֽה׃ (ס)
(22) When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. (23) But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, (24) eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, (25) burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
דיני נפשות בפלוגתא דרבי ורבנן דתניא רבי אומר (שמות כא, כג) ונתת נפש תחת נפש ממון
In cases of capital law, the dispute concerning such a prohibition is with regard to the issue that is the subject of the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis, as it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says with regard to that which is written: “If men struggle and they hurt a pregnant woman…and if there shall be a tragedy you shall give a life for a life” (Exodus 21:22–23), the reference is to a monetary payment for the life that he took. The tragedy referenced is the unintentional killing of the mother.
דיני נפשות בפלוגתא דרבי ורבנן דתניא רבי אומר (שמות כא, כג) ונתת נפש תחת נפש ממון
In cases of capital law, the dispute concerning such a prohibition is with regard to the issue that is the subject of the dispute between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and the Rabbis, as it is taught in a baraita that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says with regard to that which is written: “If men struggle and they hurt a pregnant woman…and if there shall be a tragedy you shall give a life for a life” (Exodus 21:22–23), the reference is to a monetary payment for the life that he took. The tragedy referenced is the unintentional killing of the mother.

(א) הַנּוֹגֵף אֶת הָאִשָּׁה וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא נִתְכַּוֵּן חַיָּב לְשַׁלֵּם דְּמֵי וְלָדוֹת לַבַּעַל וְנֵזֶק וְצַעַר לָאִשָּׁה:

(1) One who strikes a woman and causes her to miscarry, even though this wasn't his intent, he must pay the value of the fetus to the [woman's] husband, and damage and pain to the woman.

2) The Full Status of Personhood Begins At a Viable Birth.

(ו) הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד, מְחַתְּכִין אֶת הַוָּלָד בְּמֵעֶיהָ וּמוֹצִיאִין אוֹתוֹ אֵבָרִים אֵבָרִים, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחַיֶּיהָ קוֹדְמִין לְחַיָּיו. יָצָא רֻבּוֹ, אֵין נוֹגְעִין בּוֹ, שֶׁאֵין דּוֹחִין נֶפֶשׁ מִפְּנֵי נָפֶשׁ:

(6) If a woman is having trouble giving birth, they cut up the child in her womb and brings it forth limb by limb, because her life comes before the life of [the child]. But if the greater part has come out, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person's life for that of another.

(ז) וַיִּיצֶר֩ ה' אֱלֹקִ֜ים אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֗ם עָפָר֙ מִן־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה וַיִּפַּ֥ח בְּאַפָּ֖יו נִשְׁמַ֣ת חַיִּ֑ים וַֽיְהִ֥י הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ חַיָּֽה׃
(7) the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

יצא ראשו - באשה המקשה לילד ומסוכנת וקתני רישא החיה פושטת ידה וחותכתו ומוציאתו לאברים דכל זמן שלא יצא לאויר העולם לאו נפש הוא וניתן להורגו ולהציל את אמו אבל יצא ראשו אין נוגעים בו להורגו דהוה ליה כילוד ואין דוחין נפש מפני נפש ואם תאמר מעשה דשבע בן בכרי (שמואל ב כ׳:כ״א) הנה ראשו מושלך אליך דדחו נפש מפני נפש

its head came out: With a women that is experiencing difficulty giving birth and is in [mortal] danger. And it is taught in the first section [of this teaching], "the midwife extends her hand and cuts it up and extracts [the pieces];" as the entire time that that it has not gone out into the air of the world, it is not [considered] a soul, and [so] it is possible to kill it and to save its mother. But when its head came out, we cannot touch it to kill it, as it is like a born [baby]; and we do not push off one soul for the sake of another.

(ב) מכה איש .. שומע אני אף בן שמונה במשמע – תלמוד לומר מכה איש מגיד שאינו חייב עד שיהרוג בן קיימא.

"And if a person strikes any nefesh of a person, and he dies, he shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17): I might think that an eight-month birth, (who is destined to die,) is also included. It is, therefore, written "If one strikes a man" — whereby we are apprised that he is not liable unless he kills one who is destined to live.

3) The Fetus Does Not Have Meaningful Status for the First Forty Days; Thereafter, It Is Considered Part of the Body of the Pregnant Person.

Note: Modern poskim count the 40 days noted in the texts below from conception. Given that our contemporary medical establishment counts pregnancy from last menstrual period, that would land the end of the 40 days at around 7-8 weeks' gestation as we count them today.

(ז) הַמַּפֶּלֶת לְיוֹם אַרְבָּעִים, אֵינָהּ חוֹשֶׁשֶׁת לְוָלָד. לְיוֹם אַרְבָּעִים וְאֶחָד, תֵּשֵׁב לְזָכָר וְלִנְקֵבָה וּלְנִדָּה. רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל אוֹמֵר, יוֹם אַרְבָּעִים וְאֶחָד, תֵּשֵׁב לְזָכָר וּלְנִדָּה. יוֹם שְׁמוֹנִים וְאֶחָד, תֵּשֵׁב לְזָכָר וְלִנְקֵבָה וּלְנִדָּה, שֶׁהַזָּכָר נִגְמָר לְאַרְבָּעִים וְאֶחָד, וְהַנְּקֵבָה לִשְׁמוֹנִים וְאֶחָד. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, אֶחָד בְּרִיַּת הַזָּכָר וְאֶחָד בְּרִיַּת הַנְּקֵבָה, זֶה וָזֶה לְאַרְבָּעִים וְאֶחָד:

(7) If a woman miscarried on the fortieth day, she need not be concerned that it was a valid childbirth. On the forty-first day, she sits as for both a male and a female and as for a menstruant. Rabbi Ishmael says: [if she miscarried on] the forty-first day she sits as for a male and as for a menstruant, But if on the eighty-first day she sits as for a male and a female and a menstruant, because a male is fully fashioned on the forty-first day and a female on the eighty-first day. But the sages say: the fashioning of the male and the fashioning of the female both take forty-one days.

ובנישואין מי חששו והתניא בת כהן שנישאת לישראל ומת טובלת ואוכלת בתרומה לערב אמר רב חסדא טובלת ואוכלת עד ארבעים דאי לא מיעברא הא לא מיעברא ואי מיעברא עד ארבעים מיא בעלמא היא
The Gemara asks: And about marriage were they concerned? Isn’t it taught in a baraita: In the case of the daughter of a priest who married an Israelite and her husband died on that same day, she immerses to purify herself, as she is ritually impure due to their intercourse, and she may partake of teruma that same evening? Evidently, the Sages were not concerned that she became pregnant from the initial act of intercourse, even that of marriage. Rav Ḥisda said: She immerses and partakes of teruma only until forty days after her husband’s death, when there is still no reason for concern, as if she is not pregnant then she is not pregnant. And if she is pregnant, until forty days from conception the fetus is merely water. It is not yet considered a living being, and therefore it does not disqualify its mother from partaking of teruma.
חד אמר הא מני רבי היא דאמר המשחרר חצי עבדו קנה וחד אמר מאי טעמא דרבי בהא קסבר עובר ירך אמו הוא ונעשה כמי שהקנה לה אחד מאבריה:
One of them said: In accordance with whose opinion is this? It is in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who says: With regard to one who emancipates half of his slave, the slave acquires freedom for half of himself, and one of them added an explanation and said: What is the reasoning of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi for this ruling? He holds: A fetus is considered as its mother’s thigh, i.e., a part of its mother’s body, and it is as though the master transferred ownership of one of her limbs to her. Since the maidservant is pregnant, the child is considered to be a part of her, and it is as though he emancipated a portion of her body. Therefore, the mother is not acting as an agent for the child, and this halakha does not present a difficulty for Rabbi Yoḥanan’s opinion.

(ד) הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁהִיא יוֹצְאָה לֵהָרֵג, אֵין מַמְתִּינִין לָהּ עַד שֶׁתֵּלֵד. יָשְׁבָה עַל הַמַּשְׁבֵּר, מַמְתִּינִין לָהּ עַד שֶׁתֵּלֵד. הָאִשָּׁה שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגָה, נֶהֱנִין בִּשְׂעָרָהּ. בְּהֵמָה שֶׁנֶּהֶרְגָּה, אֲסוּרָה בַהֲנָיָה:

(4) If a woman is about to be executed, they do not wait for her until she gives birth. But if she had already sat on the birthstool, they wait for her until she gives birth. If a woman has been put to death one may use her hair. If an animal has been put to death it is forbidden to make any use of it.

גמ׳ פשיטא גופה היא איצטריך ס"ד אמינא הואיל וכתיב (שמות כא, כב) כאשר ישית עליו בעל האשה ממונא דבעל הוא ולא ליפסדיה מיניה קמ"ל

GEMARA: Isn’t it obvious that the court executes the pregnant woman rather than waiting? After all, it is her body! The Gemara answers: It was necessary for the mishna to teach this, as it might enter your mind to say that since it is written: “And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her offspring depart…he shall be fined, as the woman’s husband shall place upon him” (Exodus 21:22), the fetus is considered to be the property of the husband. If so, the court should wait until she gives birth before executing her, and not cause him to lose the fetus. Consequently, the mishna teaches us that the court does not take this factor into account.

The gemara on the mishnah directly above it clarifies that the fetus is not the property of the husband, and, in the process, offers a powerful statement that has real resonance for today: “It’s obvious! It is her body!”

4) Abortion As Self-Defense

אמר רב הונא קטן הרודף ניתן להצילו בנפשו קסבר רודף אינו צריך התראה לא שנא גדול ולא שנא קטן איתיביה רב חסדא לרב הונא יצא ראשו אין נוגעין בו לפי שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש ואמאי רודף הוא שאני התם דמשמיא קא רדפי לה

§ Rav Huna says: If a minor was pursuing another person in order to kill him, the pursued party may be saved with the pursuer’s life. That is to say, one is permitted to save the pursued party by killing the minor who is pursuing him, and one does not say that since the minor lacks halakhic competence, he is not subject to punishment. The Gemara explains: Rav Huna maintains that a pursuer, in general, does not require forewarning, and there is no difference with regard to this matter between an adult and a minor. The essence of the matter is rescuing the pursued party from death, and therefore the pursuer’s liability to receive the death penalty is irrelevant. Rav Ḥisda raised an objection to Rav Huna from a baraita: If a woman was giving birth and her life was being endangered by the fetus, the life of the fetus may be sacrificed in order to save the mother. But once his head has emerged during the birthing process, he may not be harmed in order to save the mother, because one life may not be pushed aside to save another life. If one is permitted to save the pursued party by killing the minor who is pursuing him, why is this so? The fetus is a pursuer who is endangering his mother’s life. The Gemara answers: This is not difficult, as it is different there, with regard to the woman giving birth, since she is being pursued by Heaven. Since the fetus is not acting of his own volition and endangering his mother of his own will, his life may not be taken in order to save his mother.

(ט) אַף זוֹ מִצְוַת לֹא תַּעֲשֶׂה שֶׁלֹּא לָחוּס עַל נֶפֶשׁ הָרוֹדֵף. לְפִיכָךְ הוֹרוּ חֲכָמִים שֶׁהָעֻבָּרָה שֶׁהִיא מַקְשָׁה לֵילֵד מֻתָּר לַחְתֹּךְ הָעֵבָּר בְּמֵעֶיהָ בֵּין בְּסַם בֵּין בְּיָד מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא כְּרוֹדֵף אַחֲרֶיהָ לְהָרְגָהּ. וְאִם מִשֶּׁהוֹצִיא רֹאשׁוֹ אֵין נוֹגְעִין בּוֹ שֶׁאֵין דּוֹחִין נֶפֶשׁ מִפְּנֵי נֶפֶשׁ וְזֶהוּ טִבְעוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם:

(9) This, indeed, is one of the negative mitzvot - not to take pity on the life of a rodef. On this basis, our Sages ruled that when complications arise and a pregnant woman cannot give birth, it is permitted to abort the fetus in her womb, whether with a knife or with drugs. For the fetus is considered a rodef of its mother. If the head of the fetus emerges, it should not be touched, because one life should not be sacrificed for another. Although the mother may die, this is the nature of the world.

Note the addition of another method of abortion in this halakha, above--”whether with a drug or by hand.”

5) A Few More Views, From the 18th c. to Today:

אמנם נדון השואל בא"א שזנתה שאלה הגונה היא. וקרוב בעיני להתירה...וגם בעובר כשר הי' צד להקל לצורך גדול. כל כמה דלא עקר. אפי' אינו משום פקוח נפש אמו. אלא להציל לה מרעתו. שגורם לה כאב גדול וצ"ע.

Rabbi Jacob Emden Responsa She’elat Ya”vetz 1:43 (1739-1759)

The questioner asks about an adulterous married woman (who is pregnant) is a good question. It appears to me to permit her (to abort)...And even in the case of a legitimate fetus there is reason to be lenient if there is a great need, as long as the fetus has not begun to emerge; even if the mother’s life is not in jeopardy, but only so as to save her from an evil associated with it that would cause her great pain…

Rabbi Mordechai Winkler, Levushei Mordekhai, Hoshen Mishpat 39 (1913)

Mental-health risk has been definitely equated with physical-health risk. This woman, in danger of losing her mental health unless the pregnancy is interrupted, would therefore accordingly qualify.

Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel, Responsa Mishaptei Uziel 4:46 (1947-1964)

It is clear that abortion is not permitted without reason. That would be destructive and frustrative of the possibility of life. But for a reason, even if it is a slim reason, such as to prevent disgrace, then we have precedent and authority to permit it.

כשנשקפת סכנה לאשה בהמשכת ההריון יש להתיר הפלת העובר בשופי. גם כשמצב בריאותה של האשה רופף מאד ולשם רפואתה או השקטת מכאוביה הגדולים דרוש לבצע הפלת העובר, אע“פ שאין סכנה ממשית, גם כן יש מקום להתיר לעשות זאת, וכפי ראות עיני המורה המצב שלפניו.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 9:51.3 (1967)

If there is a danger to the mother from continuing the pregnancy, one should permit abortion without hesitation. Also, if her health is poor and to cure her or to relieve her from great pain it is necessary to abort the fetus, even if she is not in actual danger, there is room to permit it, based on the halachic authority’s evaluation of the situation.

ברור ופשוט הדבר בהלכה דישראל אינו נהרג על העוברין, ומלבד דעה יחידית סוברים הפוסקים שאיסור מיהא ישנו, אבל דעת הרבה מהפוסקים שהאיסור אינו אלא מדרבנן, או הוא רק משום גדר בנינו של עולם, אבל מחמת איבוד נפשות אין נדנוד כלל, ומשום כך מתיר בשו"ת מהרי"ט ט:צ"ז–צ"ט לסדר בישראלית הפלת ולד בכל היכא שהדבר נחוץ משום רפואת אמו, אפילו באין סיבה של פקו"נ לאם... ובכזאת, ויותר מזאת, צידד להתיר בהדיא בשו"ת שאילת יעב"ץ א:מג, וכותב בלשון: "וגם בעובר כשר יש צד להקל לצורך גדול כל כמה דלא עקר אפילו אינו משום פקוח נפש אמו, אלא להציל לה מרעתו שגורם לה כאב גדול." הרי בהדיא שדבר הצעת ההיתר בזה של היעב"ץ הוא אפילו כשליכא בכאן שאלת פקו"נ של האם, והמדובר רק כדי להצילה מכאב גדול שיש לה בגללו, ושבכלל יש להקל בזה לצורך גדול. וא"כ הגע בעצמך האם יש צורך, צער וכאב, יותר גדול מזה של נידוננו, אשר יגרם לאם בהולד לה יצור כזה, שכולו אומר יסורים ומכאובים ומיתתו בטוח במשך מספר שנים, ועיני ההורים רואות וכלות באין לאל ידם להושיע? )וברור שלא משנה ולא מפחית כלום באם הילוד הזה ילקח למוסד מיוחד ולא יתנו גישה להורים עד מותו (. ומתוסף לזה פיתולי היסורים והמכאובים של היילוד בעצמו... ויסורים וכאבים נפשיים המה במדה מרובה הרבה יותר גדולים ויותר מכאיבים מיסורים גופיים...

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, Tzitz Eliezer 13:102 (1978)

It is clear and obvious as law that a Jew is not killed for a fetus. Aside from one view, the authorities rule that there is a prohibition, but many authorities believe that this prohibition is rabbinic, or it is under “building the world.” But there is no concern for destroying a life, and therefore Maharit 1:97-99 permits arrangement for a Jewish woman to abort a fetus where it is needed for the mother’s health, even without it being a matter of saving the mother’s life… And in such a case, and beyond this, Rabbi Yaakov Emden permitted, writing, “And even with a legitimate fetus, there is room to be lenient for great need, so long as it has not been uprooted [for birth], even without a need to save the mother’s life, but only to save her from her evil, which causes her great pain.” We see clearly that this permission of Rabbi Yaakov Emden is even when it is not a matter of saving the mother’s life, and it is only to save her from great pain because of the child, and that in general there is room to be lenient for great need. If so, ask yourself: Is there any need, pain or ache greater than in our case, which will cause the mother in birthing such a creation, whose whole existence is suffering and pain, and whose death is certain in a matter of years, and whose parents watch and deteriorate without any power to save? (And certainly, it would not change or reduce anything if the child would be taken to a special institution without access for the parents until his death). And added to this are the suffering and pain of the child himself… And suffering and emotional pain in great measure are greater and more painful than physical pain…

Rabbi Kass Abelson, Proceedings of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, pp. 3-10 (1980-5)

There is clear precedent in the tradition...to permit abortion of a fetus to save a mother’s life, to safeguard her health, or even for “a very thin reason,” such as to spare her physical pain or mental anguish.

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, “Abortion: A Halakhic Perspective,” Tradition 25:4 (1991)

Here it is clear that saving a life is not the only sanction for permitting an abortion. This is evident from the Talmudic passage that permits a nursing mother to cohabitate using a mokh (a barrier of cotton or wool) to prevent pregnancy… Since this prohibition is waived to facilitate normal family relations (which is why the emission in this context is not “wasteful”), it would follow that other ethical and humane factors may also be taken into account. It would seem to me that issues such as kevod ha-beriyot (dignity of persons), shalom bayit (domestic peace) and tza’ar (pain), which all carry significant halakhic weight in other contexts, should be considered in making these decisions.

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) is a grassroots organization of volunteers and advocates who turn progressive ideals into action. Inspired by Jewish values, NCJW strives for social justice by improving the quality of life for women, children, and families and by safeguarding individual rights and freedoms. Learn more at NCJW.org