Women’s Bodily Autonomy

Women’s Bodily Autonomy (2012)

Background

Biblical and rabbinic sources provide the background for the Conservative Jewish response to a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and to the relative rights of a woman versus a fetus. (This resolution is based upon the 2012 Rabbinical Assembly resolution on this subject.)

In Exodus 21:22-23 we read: “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… But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life…,” which determines that only the woman is a nefesh, living person, not the fetus.

This understanding of the status of a fetus is supported by Leviticus 24:17: “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17) In the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (21:12), the midrash teaches that a fetus is not a living person: “The Torah says [one who strikes] a man (Exodus 21:12), meaning a viable human being, to exclude the fetus.”

Furthermore, Mishnah Ohalot 7:6 also teaches: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth [and her life is in danger], one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another,” which is understood to mean that a woman whose life is endangered by a pregnancy is permitted to end the pregnancy.

Likewise, there is the understanding that grave psychological distress is a legitimate reason to end a pregnancy. Thus we find in the teshuvah of R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, part 13, No. 102: “One should permit… abortion as soon as it becomes evident without doubt from the test that, indeed, such a baby (Tay-Sachs baby) shall be born, even until the seventh month of her pregnancy…If, indeed, we may permit an abortion according to the halakhah because of ‘great need’ and because of pain and suffering, it seems that this is the classic case for such permission. And it is irrelevant in what way the pain and suffering is expressed, whether it is physical or psychological. Indeed, psychological suffering is in many ways much greater than the suffering of the flesh.”

Resolution

WHEREAS, biblical and rabbinic sources provide the background for the Conservative Jewish response to a woman’s right to bodily autonomy and to the relative rights of a woman versus a fetus,

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that Women’s League for Conservative Judaism calls upon its sisterhoods to:

  • Educate their members about the Jewish perspective on when life begins utilizing the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards teshuvot on the subject;
  • Support full access for all women to the entire spectrum of reproductive healthcare;
  • Urge its members to oppose all efforts by governmental, private entities or individuals to limit such access or to require unnecessary procedures.