Who Counts?

June 7th: Bemidbar
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

As we begin the Book of Bemidbar, called Numbers in English because of the census commanded by God and conducted by Moses, I am drawn to reflect on the way that we count and classify human lives—specifically in the continually raging controversy over abortion rights. Who is a living human being? Who gets to decide? Who counts?

 Here are some observations:

(1)  The Bible does not mention abortion—neither the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament”) nor the Christian New Testament. Some speakers get creative with a few poetic passages and create proof texts, but the fact is that the Bible does not address this issue. The only remotely relevant passage (Exodus 21.22) is in regard to torts when a pregnant woman is accidently injured and miscarries. “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. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” In other words, the loss of the fetus is regarded as an injury to the woman and not a loss of a human soul.

(2) Traditional religions did not and do not regard the zygote, the embryo, or the fetus as an en-souled human life. Evidence to this fact can be seen in the absence of funeral rituals marking miscarriage. Neither Judaism nor Christianity nor Islam identifies a miscarried fetus as a person who is to be named or buried or mourned. Though expectant parents may be heartbroken when a miscarriage occurs—and as supportive as some religious communities can hopefully be in such situations, the loss of a pregnancy was and is not treated the same as the loss of a born and en-souled human being.

(3) There is, in much of the anti-abortion rhetoric, an anti-sexuality bias. Speakers often assume that abortion is only for women who have engaged in the sins of premarital or extra-marital sex. A common complaint is that abortion “allows sinful females to escape the punishment that they deserve.” Is this what we believe, and, if not, how can we let this anti-feminist and anti-sexual liberation mentality drive such a debate?

(4) There is a tragic short-sightedness in the efforts to defund or close down Planned Parenthood, an organization which is about much more than abortions. Among its most important work is general health care—a trip to the obstetrician/gynecologist being the only doctor’s visit for many women. In other words, closing down Planned Parenthood is harmful to many women’s general health. Then there is the contraception work which, regardless of one’s beliefs about pre-marital sex, is realistically the best hope of decreasing unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, in a number of localities, anti-abortion and pro-choice groups have found common ground in teaching contraception and making it readily available, thereby decreasing the number of abortions performed.

(5) One of the great and painful ironies of this issue is how differently women react to pregnancy. For some, it is the answer to prayers, while, for others, it is a nightmare. There are women—both married and unmarried—for whom a pregnancy presents danger and insecurity. For those seeking abortions, there is a sense of emergency—of urgency and desperation. Regardless of what they may feel about the issue in general, when it comes to their unwanted pregnancies, many women feel the need to resort to abortion. This is even true in the anti-abortion movement where those protesting at abortion clinics one week may bring a neighbor or relative for an abortion the next week. Regardless of “principle,” an individual in an emergent situation feels that her need requires an extraordinary solution.

(6) Though Roe v. Wade was written some forty-five years ago, the science has not changed enough to answer the lack of certainty that is at the base of Justice Blackmun’s reasoning. We still do not know when “life” begins. Given this gaping hole in our knowledge, Justice Blackmun balances the two competing rights, that of a woman to control her own body AND that of a potential/developing life to continue developing toward life. His answer is a sliding scale of rights. In the first trimester, the rights of the potential/developing life are overruled by the rights of a woman who does not want to carry the pregnancy to term. In the third trimester, the rights of the potential/developing life overrule the rights of the woman over her own body—unless continuing the pregnancy poses tangible harm to the woman. (This, by the way, is the Jewish tradition, as explained by Rashi back 1000 years ago: if the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother, the fetus is likened to a rodef, a pursuer, and one is allowed to kill a pursuer in order to save one’s life.) The middle trimester is one in which the two competing rights are more balanced, and Justice Blackmun follows Federalist thinking and allows each individual state to make its own determination.

(7) A final thought: Though I generally do not use opera as a basis for ethical, religious, or political thinking, there is something about Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that speaks to the reality of this issue. Through its tragically beautiful music, we see how the promises and optimism of an aroused male can cool very quickly—especially when the realities of a pregnancy present themselves. Based on a true story, the opera tells a tragically common tale. While most men live up to their responsibilities and care for their pregnant partners and children, far too many are nowhere to be found. The woman who finds herself pregnant bears the ultimate responsibility and does not have the option of leaving town or the hemisphere. As such, each individual woman should have the right to determine her own fate.