Jews and abortion

One of the most frequent questions Christians ask me as a Jew is, “Why aren’t Jews committed to protecting the unborn?”

The question is not asked in anger. The questioners are truly confused. Christians think of Jews as the people who brought the greatest value system into the world — biblical, monotheistic values upon which Western civilization is based.

It was the Torah, after all, that introduced the idea that the human being is created in God’s image, and therefore infinitely valuable. So, while the Greeks allowed sickly or unsightly children to die of exposure, Jews kept every child alive.

Most Jews will respond that what concerns them regarding the human fetus is protecting a woman’s right to have an abortion. It is not that they are “pro-abortion,” but that they are first and foremost pro-choice.

Now, that response would be understandable, and perhaps even morally unobjectionable, if Jews took a moral stand against most abortions while they advocated for the legality of abortion.

What we have here are two separate issues. Ironically, however, both pro-life and pro-choice advocates choose to them see as one.

The first is the legality of abortion. 

The other is the morality of abortion.

Pro-life people argue that since abortions are almost all immoral, abortion — unless performed to save the mother’s life or, for others, in cases of rape or incest — should be illegal.

Meanwhile pro-choice activists argue that since all abortions should be legal, they will never judge any abortions to be immoral.

Because they do not distinguish the legal and moral issues, both sides have done injury to moral clarity about abortion as well as to their respective causes.

By advocating the criminalizing of nearly all abortions, the pro-life forces have hurt their cause. Even the many Americans who are morally ambivalent about abortion on demand — a 2011 Gallup poll showed that 51 percent of Americans believe abortion is morally wrong and only 39 percent believe that abortion is morally acceptable — are against criminalizing abortion. The pro-life movement should have concentrated its rhetorical firepower on the morality of abortion, not its legality.

One the other side, the pro-choice forces are so passionate about the legality of abortions that they are silent about its morality.

And that is where most Jews — especially rabbis — have been a moral disappointment.

Without having to abandon their pro-choice position, any Jew who speaks as a Jew or who cares about Jewish moral values should acknowledge that many abortions have no moral defense. Yet, I have almost never encountered a pro-choice Jew who does so.

Let me give an example of where Jews would surely be pro-choice yet be outspoken about the moral issue: adultery.

I presume that just about every Jew — from ultra-Orthodox and politically conservative to completely irreligious and politically left — would oppose criminalizing adultery. In other words, all Jews are pro-choice on adultery. Yet, I would also presume that nearly all Jews, and certainly all rabbis, if asked whether they are pro-choice on adultery, would respond that while they are, they want to make it abundantly clear that they regard adultery as immoral.

Why, then, can’t pro-choice Jews — especially rabbis — say the same thing about abortion? Why can’t they say that while they are pro-choice, as Jews and as moral humans they regard most abortions immoral?

Is it moral to abort a female fetus solely because the mother wants a boy?

Is it moral for an affluent married woman to have an abortion solely because she just doesn’t want a child at this time, or just doesn’t want any more children?

Is it moral to have an abortion when the fetus can live outside the womb — and there is no medical necessity to have one?

Is it moral to have an abortion for no medical reason even though there are myriad married couples who ache to adopt a newborn?

Shouldn’t everyone be troubled by these questions? 

If the Jewish community took as strong a stand on the immorality of most abortions as it does on keeping abortion legal, it would not only strengthen the pro-choice cause, it would bring moral honor to the Jewish people and to Judaism. That almost no non-Orthodox rabbis, let alone Jewish women’s groups and Jewish organizations preoccupied with social justice, have publicly expressed moral misgivings concerning any abortions is not a credit to Judaism or the Jewish people. 

This is one more reason one must sadly conclude that for many, perhaps most, Jews leftism has supplanted Judaism as their religion; Judaism has become largely a cultural expression and an ethnic identity. One way to reassert the primacy of Judaism would be for pro-choice Jews — again, especially rabbis — to publicly assert the difference between abortion’s legality and most abortions’ morality.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Romney/Ryan and the lullaby of lying

It shouldn’t have taken Todd Akin’s ” target=”_hplink”>method of conception.” 

If the news media hadn’t grown blasé about the Republican war on women, plenty of pre-Akin Americans would have already known that GOP majorities in Congress and state legislatures have repeatedly voted to narrow the definition of “legitimate rape” to “” target=”_hplink”>personhood” to fertilized eggs, which would criminalize birth control pills, IUDs and in vitro fertility procedures.  If cynicism weren’t the default mode of political reporting, we’d now be seeing Mitt Romney’s feet held to the fire of his party’s ” target=”_hplink”>Reince Preibus’ attempt to dissociate the candidate from his platform would be worth more than a chuckle and a yawn from the press corps.

“The Big Lie” is a propaganda technique that kids hear about in school.  If you learn what Nazis and Communists did, if you read Orwell’s “1984,” you’re supposed to be inoculated against pervasive, outrageous falsehoods.  That’s why Jefferson and Franklin counted on public education and public libraries.  It’s also why the First Amendment protects the fourth estate; it shields muckrakers, investigative journalists, critics and gadflies from censorship.

But today the biggest threat to democracy isn’t government intimidation of the press.  It’s boredom – a consequence of the domination of political communication by paid media, the subordination of news to entertainment, the imperative to monetize audience attention, the fear that information and amusement are locked in a zero sum game. 

Mitt Romney and deep pockets like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson have flooded the airwaves with ads claiming that Barack Obama has eliminated the ” target=”_hplink”>Medicare recipients to fund a ” target=”_hplink”>lazy blacks, there’s no news left in the narrative.  Networks fear that audiences will get bored, so they move on.  And yes, there may be some truth to their understanding of their customers.  We’re hooked on novelty, suckers for speed, addled by ADD.  But billionaires don’t get bored.  They keep paying to pound those ads into our heads, whether we like it or not.  Repetition is the demagogue’s best friend. 

No member of Congress is farther to the right than Paul Ryan.  He’s an acolyte of the ideologue ” target=”_hplink”>safety net that has defined the American social contract since the 1930s, but explaining this takes time, which risks audience share, and in the face of a barrage of ads portraying him as the savior of seniors, it takes the kind of persistence that news executives fear hurts ratings.  He is a ” target=”_hplink”>fraudulent, but hey, how ‘bout the six-pack on that dreamboat?

If the media were doing its job in this election, the story it would be telling over and over is that Mitt Romney’s qualification for the presidency consists of a career at Bain Capital about which we know essentially nothing; that his economic plan is the most massive ” target=”_hplink”>financial disclosure rules that have applied to presidential candidates since his father ran; that his ” target=”_hplink”>identical to the Affordable Care Act he promises to repeal; that he has ” target=”_hplink”>suppress voter turnout may well send him to the White House.

But that’s old news.  Been there, done that.  I’ll leave it to others to make the case that the press is giving Obama a free ride.  If that’s true, then there’s been a double dereliction of duty.  News producers are afraid that indefatigable fact checking of either party will bore the pants off people.  But I don’t smell any fear of ennui emanating from station owners making billions off broadcasting the Big Lie.

Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at

Man as Creator

A woman who had taken fertility treatments became pregnant only to learn that she was carrying four embryos. Her doctors suggested multifetal pregnancy reduction, a process to eliminate some of the embryos so that the remaining ones would have a better chance of normal development. What does Jewish medical ethics advise her to do?

The above incident was one of the hypothetical scenarios put forth by Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who along with Dr. Judith Partnow Hyman, VBS congregant and psychotherapist, convened a panel of experts — a rabbi, a perinatologist and a medical ethicist — to discuss conception issues for the first of three Medical Ethics Beit Dein programs, "A Time To Be Born: The Creation of a New Life," examining modern medical issues from a Jewish perspective. (The second program, "Healing the Body, Soothing the Soul, The New Role of the Physician," took place on Nov. 21.)

Human beings are now called upon to make choices once considered "decisions that only God has the wisdom to make," Feinstein said. The series addresses the moral conflicts people face today as a result of advanced fertility technology.

Jews often face dilemmas surrounding conception because they generally marry and start families later in life, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a University of Judaism professor and panel member who serves as vice chair of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This makes them more likely to need such procedures as fertility treatment or in vitro fertilization in order to conceive.

The instance of multiple fetuses has grown dramatically with increased use of reproductive technology. The more fetuses present in the womb, the less likely each is to survive, said panel member Dr. David Braun, regional director of perinatal care for Southern California Kaiser Permanente. Those that make it to birth are prone to experience serious long-term health problems. In addition, having multiple fetuses increases the mother’s chances of experiencing life-threatening complications. "Because of that, we tend to recommend seriously considering reduction of the pregnancy to fewer babies," Braun said.

If the parents’ goal of undergoing these procedures was to have a healthy baby, "very quickly one reaches the question: How can they not do multifetal pregnancy reduction?" said the panel’s third member, Dr. Neil Wenger, chair of the UCLA Medical Ethics Committee and a professor of medicine. At the same time, Wenger said, couples and their doctors should clarify their goals and values ahead of time, discussing the likelihood of multiple pregnancy and how it would be handled prior to facing the situation.

"In Jewish tradition, God owns our bodies," Dorff said. "We have them on loan for the duration of our lives and we have a responsibility to take care of [them]." This means we are forbidden from mutilating our bodies, and at the same time we are obligated to take action to save our own lives, even if it means sacrificing a part of our body.

Thus in the case of the multiple pregnancies, Dorff said, "It seems to me from a Jewish perspective [the mother] would have the requirement to reduce the number of fetuses in her womb in order to save her own life and health as well as the [remaining] fetuses. There are stages in coming into life and … in leaving life. Your halachic status depends upon what stage you’re in in that process." Our tradition, he said, does not recognize the fetuses as full-fledged human beings.

In vitro fertilization presents its own set of ethical challenges. Dorff pointed out that potentially there can be up to five individuals involved in the conception — the couple wanting the child, an egg donor, a sperm donor and a woman to carry the fetus to birth. (To which Feinstein commented, "Practically a minyan.")

More problematic is the issue of screening the embryos for gender, disease or — if it ever became possible — personality traits. Dorff said that because the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply" is only fulfilled once a couple has both a boy and a girl, there may be religious grounds for allowing gender selection.

Wenger suggested looking at the broader picture. "There is something called a communal ethic, where each individual or couple has a responsibility to the rest of its social network." Selecting by gender could harm the community by ultimately swaying the population in one direction or another.

As for selecting for traits such as athletic ability or musical talent, Wenger said we have a responsibility "not to use science in such a way that our whim gets satisfied [at the expense of] society as a whole."

"Jewish tradition respects the power of human intellect and human imagination and human judgement," Feinstein said. "We’ve always been a pro-science community because we respect the power of human beings to make the right judgments."

The final program "A Time to Live, A Time To Die, Accepting the End of Life," will take place Dec. 5, 7:30 p.m at VBS, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call (818) 530-4093.