Religious Studies

Judaism: contraception and abortion

Making decisions on moral issues is not easy. Religion helps followers to make decisions that are pleasing to God and create a society where people respect and care for each other

Making moral decisions

People draw on a variety of sources of authority to help them make a decision. For example:

  • scripture
  • religious leaders and the official teaching of their religion
  • personal conscience
  • reason

There are two types of morality that affect the decisions people make – absolute morality and relative moraility.

Absolute morality

If you believe in absolute morality you will have faith that there is a right course of action to take in a moral dilemma, which is true in all situations regardless of culture, religious tradition, time or age.

How would a follower of this sort of morality respond to the commandment ‘Do not kill’? They would try to make sure that they were not involved in any killing, which would affect their views on issues such as war, abortion and euthanasia. They would say that these actions are wrong in all circumstances.

Relative morality

If you believe in relative morality you would agree that different courses of action might be needed in different situations.

How would a follower of this sort of morality respond to the commandment ‘Do not kill’? They would agree that killing is wrong, but would look at a range of other issues as well and say that sometimes killing might be necessary in a particular situation, such as abortion, if continuing the pregnancy would result in the birth of a very disabled child, or if the mother had been raped.

Contraception

Contraception or ‘birth control’ is used for a variety of reasons:

  • when pregnancy might harm the mental or physical condition of the mother
  • to limit the number of children people have to ensure they don't damage living standards or affect other children
  • to prevent pregnancy in people who do not want a child at this stage in their lives

Jewish beliefs about contraception

Contraception, including artificial contraception, is permitted in Judaism in appropriate circumstances.

Reform and Liberal schools of Judaism allow birth control for a wide range of reasons. Orthodox Judaism is more restrictive.

The methods of contraception allowed under Jewish law are those that do not damage the sperm or stop it getting to its intended destination. These are the contraceptive pill and the IUD.

Judaism teaches that life is a sacred gift from God:

Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

Genesis 1:26-27

Sexual intercourse is seen as an important part of marriage. It is part of a husband’s duty and a woman’s rights. Judaism is generally opposed to contraception because of teachings such as:

He who fashioned and made the earth… he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited…

Isaiah 45:18

God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’

Genesis 1:28

Contraceptives are also thought to interfere with the physical union between a man and a woman:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24

On the other hand any restriction on the use of contraceptives can be lifted if the mother’s life is at risk in any way.

Abortion

Abortion is the artificial ending of the life of a foetus in the womb (uterus). A natural abortion is called a miscarriage. Abortion has been legal in England, Scotland and Wales since 1967 when The Abortion Act was passed. A new upper time limit of 24 weeks was introduced in 1990 under The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act.

An abortion may be carried out if one of the following conditions applies:

  • the life or physical health of the mother is at risk
  • the mental health of the mother is at risk
  • the mother’s existing family will suffer
  • there is a reasonable chance that the child will be born seriously disabled

Where the mental health of the mother is at risk, or her family will suffer if the pregnancy continues, the latest termination date is 24 weeks. There is no upper limit if the life or physical health of the mother is at risk, or if there is a reasonable chance of a seriously disabled child being born.

In 1974 119,000 legal abortions were carried out in England and Wales, by 2006 this figure had risen to 193,700.

Jewish teaching on abortion

In Judaism, abortion is thought to be worse than contraception [Contraception: Birth control; actions, devices or medication intended to prevent conception. ] because it interferes with a potential life. However there are instances when it is permitted, particularly when the life of the mother is at risk. The decision must be taken by the mother. The later in the pregnancy, the more difficult it is to approve of an abortion.

It is clear that the life of the mother is more important than that of an unborn child:

If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life.

Exodus 21:22-23

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