Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where Ortho Judaism parts ways with the Christian Religious Right

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that most people don't really have a clue on where halacha/Orthodox Judaism stands on two issues: abortion and fetal stem-cell research.

I'm thinking that because Orthodox Jews share so many of the "Judeo-Christian values" with the Christian Religious Right, people think that our views on these two hot issues are identical to theirs. No sirree Bob.

(Jewish law) takes a very complicated view of abortion. We do not believe that life begins at conception, for example. However, we also assign rights to potential-life. So while we do not believe that abortion is equal to murder, we do not sanction any abortions unless very specific circumstances are involved, mostly those threatening the life of the mother and only very early on in the pregnancy. So, say, if a 16 year old girl got pregnant and having the baby would be a tremendous hardship for her socially and financially and would keep her from going to college, she probably wouldn't be able to get a halachically sanctioned abortion, because those reasons just aren't strong enough. On the other hand, if a woman discovered she had cancer and she was one month pregnant, and the pregnancy was accelerating the advancement of the cancer, she probably would be able to get a halachically sanctioned abortion, because the baby's growth was seriously threatening her life. By the way, I always say "probably" because I am not a rabbi or halachic expert, and every single case is different when it comes to evaluating something halachically. I am rendering conclusions based on the broadest set of circumstances.

So is halacha pro-Life? Yes. Is halacha pro-Choice? Yes. Confusing, isn't it?

Many Orthodox Jews prefer to align themselves with the pro-Life movement because 1) of the slippery slope possibilities that pro-Choice opens up, like late-term abortions, and partial-birth abortions, which probably would be halachically labeled as murder and 2) the whole gestalt of the idea of arbitrary abortion-at-will, which, while not necessarily deemed murder, is still completely contrary to Halacha.

Some Orthodox Jews, myself included, prefer to align themselves with the pro-Choice movement because there are instances (though, as we said, relatively rare) in which Halacha permits abortions, and making abortions illegal would close the door on these instances. We also are a little turned off to being lumped in with the Religious Right, since while Halacha assigns enormous value to potential life, it also differentiates it from actual life, and this is an important distinction. We don't view fetuses as mere extensions of women's bodies, but they aren't people either. They belong to some gray-area middle ground, which is why we so urge those who Orthos who would seek an abortion to not make any assumptions either way on its permissibility, but to speak to a Rabbi who is a halachic expert in this area.

Embryonic stem cell-research is, believe it or not, a much clearer issue than abortion. There is a strong halachic distinction between a fetus and an embryo. A fetus is a fertilized embryo that has been implanted in a uterus. Halachically, it has that previously-mentioned potential-life status, and may not be destroyed for its stem cells. Fertilized embryos, however, that have not been implanted in a uterus, have no potential-life status, and so they may be destroyed for their stem cell tissues. Once again, it's important to understand that halacha does not believe that life begins at conception. The distinction is implantation vs. no implantation. Although the embryonic stem cell issue is a more clear-cut one, let me still add the caveat that it is important to consult a halachic expert when faced with this situation, given what is at stake. If you are interested in this subject, read the RCA's letter to President Bush in support of embryonic stem-cell research.

So while we may share a value or two (or three) with the Religious Right, here are two politically charged issues where Halachic Judaism differs with them. Food for thought.

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