Bottom Line Up Front: Abortion has generally been viewed negatively in Jewish history, but it has not always been regarded as murder without exception.
In part three of this series we saw that Bible itself offers no direct guidance on abortion. We also saw that the closest biblical analogue to abortion, Exodus 21:22-25, sheds only indirect light on the subject, and that light itself has been the subject of interpretive debate. With that in mind, the next few installments of this series will focus on how religious authorities throughout time have understood and dealt specifically with the issue of abortion.
One thing we know for sure is that abortion is not a recent development. Ancient records seem to indicate that basically as long as there have been pregnant women, there have been abortions. In a survey of various civilizations throughout history, developmental biologist and historian of biology Scott Gilbert observes: “While abortion is…a complicated issue with many confounding political, social, and cultural factors, historically one of the fundamental determinants of the moral consequences of abortion stemmed from what stage people viewed the embryo as a human being.” That very question, he explains
Has been pondered throughout history and in a multitude of cultural contexts. The “answer” is fluid, in that it has been changing throughout history, because any answer about when human life begins is deeply integrated with the beliefs, values and social constructs of the community or individual that drew the conclusion. Throughout history there have been several “answers” to the question of when human life begins, but the only consistency among the answers is that they are always changing as social contexts change, religious morals fluctuate, or new knowledge about the process of embryo development is obtained.
As we’ll see in the next few posts, the abortion debate in religious history reflects the trend observed by Gilbert. This post will focus predominately on the history of abortion in Jewish thought and the next two posts will be dedicated to Christian though. I believe it’s important to consider both, primarily because “Judeo-Christian values” are so often referenced in this discussion in particular as well as American politics in general. As a general summary, we can safely say that abortion was usually viewed negatively, though for different reasons and to different degrees and with various exceptions.
Philo of Alexandria
Having already examined the Jewish scriptures themselves, we’ll begin by looking at Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher of the early first-century CE. In one of his writings Philo states unequivocally “that no one shall cause the offspring of women to be abortive by means of miscarriage, or by any other contrivance.” Pretty straightforward. Of course, it should be noted that this injunction immediately follows a similar prohibition that “that no one shall eradicate the generative powers of a man” and is in close proximity to his command “that no one shall cause his seed to disappear.” The first forbids castration, which, by extension, would include surgical sterilization. The second, it seems, forbids masturbation or, potentially, withdrawal prior to ejaculation, (i.e. Onanism). The point is, the context of Philo’s prohibition on abortion seems to have been more closely connected to sexual ethics than to harm ethics. In other words, abortion wasn’t wrong because it was the murder of a human, but because it prevented procreation in similar ways to castration and masturbation.
Perhaps Philo’s most significant contribution to this discussion is his interpretation and application of Exodus 21:22-25, the passage we examined in the last installment. He says,
But if any one has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world.
A careful comparison with the passage in Exodus reveals a several notable observations. First, instead of two men fighting and striking a pregnant woman accidentally, Philo envisions a direct conflict with a pregnant woman. Second, Philo clearly understands the result of the blow to be miscarriage, not premature birth. The difference, according to Philo’s interpretation, is whether the miscarried fetus was “unfashioned” or whether it had “assumed a distinct shape in all its parts.” If the miscarried fetus was “unformed,” the attacker should only be fined. If, however, if the miscarried fetus was “formed,” the attacker should be sentenced to death. In other words, Philo makes a distinction in regard to fetal development and argues that at a certain point of development the fetus does, in fact, become fully human and the termination of the pregnancy at that point would be equivalent to murder. That developmental stage, which Philo describes as “requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world,” seems to correspond with what we might describe today as the point of “viability,” at which point a fetus is able to survive outside of the mother’s womb.
To understand why Philo would make this distinction, we need to recognize that he was not reading the Jewish scriptures in the original Hebrew, but in a Greek translation. As has been demonstrated by scholars, the translators mistakenly rendered the Hebrew for “harm” as a Greek word meaning “form.” You can see compare the difference between these translations below. The NRSV is a translation from the Hebrew, the LXX is a translation from the Greek.
NRSV: When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life.
LXX: And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life.
This distinction between formed and unformed fetuses will come up again when we look at some of the early Christian leaders and their positions on abortion, since most of them, like Philo, relied on Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures. But for now, we can crudely summarize the Jewish philosopher Philo’s position by saying that that believed abortion to be impermissible, though not always murder.
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing in the late first-century CE, offers further insight into the Jewish understanding of pregnancy termination. Quite clearly drawing on Exodus 21, he writes
He that kicks a woman with child, so that the woman miscarry, let him pay a fine in money, as the judges shall determine, as having diminished the multitude by the destruction of what was in her womb; and let money also be given the woman’s husband by him that kicked her; but if she die of the stroke, let him also be put to death, the law judging it equitable that life should go for life.
Once again, it’s clear that Josephus sees the result of the blow to be miscarriage, not premature birth. If miscarriage is the extent of the damage, the attacker is to be fined. If, however, the pregnant woman dies, the attacker is to be put to death. As we’ve seen in other places, Josephus here makes a qualitative difference between the unborn and the mother, the latter counts as “a life,” while the former does not.
As you might expect, however, it gets more complicated. In another writing, Josephus addresses abortion directly:
The law, moreover enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind:
Here, Josephus equates intentional abortion with infanticide and regards a woman who does so as a murderer. How does this square with his view that a man who kicks a woman and causes a miscarriage is not a murderer? Two explanations seem probable. Perhaps in the case of a man attacking a woman, he views the fetus as an unintendedvictim. Or, perhaps, Josephus’s views were rooted in misogyny. Evidence for this explanation can be found in the immediate context of his prohibition on abortion. Not more than a couple sentences prior he writes, “For, saith the Scripture, ‘A woman is inferior to her husband in all things.’” Of course, “the scripture” says no such thing. This would be neither the first nor the last time that there would be a double standard for men and women. Either way, it’s clear that Josephus does not look favorably on abortion.
The destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 CE led to a significant reshaping of ancient Judaism and the emergence of what has been called “Rabbinic Judaism.” Unlike Philo of Alexandria, who relied on Greek translations of the Hebrew scriptures, the rabbis worked directly with the Hebrew text, which, as we’ve seen differed significantly from the Greek translation of Exodus 21. Daniel Schiff, in his book Abortion in Judaism, writes that the emergence of rabbinic Judaism brought with it “a period of scholarly elucidation and chronicling of Jewish legal knowledge that was without precedent. This reality would prove to be a significant spur towards articulating a coherent stance on abortion.”
So what was the coherent Jewish stance on abortion during the rabbinic age? In short, the consensus was that, based on Exodus 21:22-25, the fetus was not a “nephesh,” a soul/life/person until birth. As such, the termination of a pregnancy in any manner was regarded “as a tort, rather than a homicide.” Summarizing the rabbinic position, Schiff explains, “The rabbis affirmed the Torah’s powerful distinction between the legal status of a mother and her fetus. The affirmation of this distinction, however, ought not to be construed as a minimization of the fetus’ status, much less as any type of warrant for feticide.” In other words, while the rabbis did not regard the termination of a fetus as murder, intentional termination was still viewed with disapproval. They simply, as Schiff notes, “were open to the possibility that feticide might be condoned in specific situations.”
One of those specific situations was when pregnancy or childbirth threatened the life of the mother. This is dealt with specifically in one of the earliest collections of rabbinic writings, known as the Mishna. At one point it says, quite graphically,
A woman who was having trouble giving birth, they cut up the fetus inside her and take it out limb by limb, because her life comes before its life. If most of it had come out already they do not touch it because we do not push off one life for another.
Of course, today we would refer to such a procedure as partial-birth abortion. For the ancient rabbis, however, such a procedure was permissible precisely because they did not believe that the fetus became a life until “most of it had come out already.” It’s important to remember that this belief was derived from their interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures, especially Exodus 21.
Today, as might be expected, modern Jews are somewhat divided on the specifics of the issue of abortion. There does, however, seems to be broad agreement that abortion is generally unfavorable but sometimes acceptable, especially as it relates to the well-being of the mother. You can find a more detailed summary of the historical and present views, along with references to primary sources in the article “Issues in Jewish Ethics: Abortion,” from the Jewish Virtual Library.
Two things seem clear from this brief review of Jewish history. First, the dominant Jewish perspective throughout history, a perspective derived from their own Hebrew scriptures, is that human life does not begin until birth and therefore abortion is generally not regarded as murder. Second, despite that belief, abortion has still been viewed with disapproval because of the way in which it destroys the potential for life. In the next installment, we’ll see how these views compare and contrast views on abortion in Christian history.
 Scott F. Gilbert, “When Does Human Life Begin,” Developmental Biology, archived on the Wayback Machine, https://web.archive.org/web/20090406045953/http://8e.devbio.com/article.php?id=162
 Gilbert, “Human Life.”
 Philo, “Hypothetica,” 7.7.
 Philo, “Hypotheitca.”
 Philo, Special Laws III, 108-109.
 Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton, The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1870), Ex 21:22–23.
 Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged(Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987), 122.
 Josephus, “Against Apion.”
 Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 26.
 Schiff, Abortion in Judaism.
 Schiff, 32.