Religion & Beliefs

Murder is Murder–Abortion is NOT

Today we mourn the death of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who has been murdered for making it possible for women to actually use their constitutional right to choose an abortion. All honor to Dr.Tiller, who joins the list of … Read More

By / June 1, 2009

Today we mourn the death of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who has been murdered for making it possible for women to actually use their constitutional right to choose an abortion. All honor to Dr.Tiller, who joins the list of martyrs for ethical decency and human rights, killed for healing with compassion. Dr. Tiller is a religious martyr in the fullest classical sense,  killed in his own church as he arrived to worship, killed for acting in accord with his religious commitments and his moral and ethical choices. (The American Jewish Congress has also condemned this murder). And all dishonor to those vicious attackers like Bill O’Reilly who have egged on the kind of violent acts that finally murdered Dr. Tiller.  And who have blasphemously invoked the name of God to justify these incitements to murder.  The Torah’s only comment on abortion makes utterly clear that it is not murder.  (In Exodus 21:22-23 we read that if someone causes an abortion but does no other harm to the mother, the agent owes a monetary recompense to the father for the loss of his potential offspring. If the mother is killed, however, a life has been killed. This passage makes clear that while the fetus is a potential person, not just tissue, it is not considered to be a human being.) I recognize that other religious traditions do claim abortion is murder, but I both disagree with their theology and think they have no right to impose it on mine,  by state power or by murder. Two real-life cases of abortion have shaped my judgement of the practice. One of these real-life cases of abortion happened in my own family. My father’s mother-my grandmother–had already birthed five young boys when she became pregnant again in 1914.  She hoped to be able to concentrate her energy on raising those five instead of birthing more. Because abortions were illegal, she had a "back-alley" abortion–and it killed her.  So she was unable to raise any of them.  Her early death cast a shadow over my father’s life till his own dying day. The second case is that one of my friends and teachers, a great and eminent rabbi, who was the child of a mother who fled Vienna after Hitler annexed Austria. His mother was pregnant when the family needed to leave, and they knew that the underground "railroad" to freedom was bound to be too arduous for a  pregnant woman. The choices were: staying in Austria, to die together; leaving her behind, to die alone; or aborting the fetus, so that all of the family had a chance to live. She had an abortion. Today my rabbi friend says they thought then and ever since that she had given birth to the whole family. I wish that President Obama, when he spoke at Notre Dame,  had said explicitly what these stories teach me: that women are moral beings, possessed of moral agency and responsibility in this unique situation where their own bodies are intertwined with another’s; and that the lives of women would be endangered if abortion were criminalized again. He chose instead to say only that the choices are difficult  and that unwanted pregnancies should be  minimized. The best way to minimize unwanted pregnancies would be if our culture and our government stopped running away from talking about sex! The U.S. government should subsidize comprehensive sex education and the provision of free condoms, the pill,  and other contraceptives in all American high schools,  and should require health insurance companies to cover the cost of birth control and abortion. And I wish that religious communities would begin providing comprehensive sex education as their children reach adolescence (and probably for adults as well). In the Jewish community, sex education should be part of the preparation for bar/ bat mitzvah. In fact, the ancient rabbis linked sexual maturity with adulthood. Rabbis originally defined the moment when a boy became an adult bound by the sacred commitments of mitzvot as the day when he had two pubic hairs. At some later point, the rabbis said that instead of checking individuals, they would settle on thirteen years and one day for all boys. But the point about puberty and sexual maturity was made. (Indeed, it is probably precisely because of the imperative need for ethical sexual behavior beginning with the onset  of sexual maturity that the rabbis thought Jews should at that point be bound by the mitzvot.) Unfortunately, in modern Jewish life this teaching is prudishly ignored.  What rabbi have you heard ever address the new Jewish adult and the adult community about sexual ethics, as part of the public ceremony of welcoming him/ her as a bar/bat mitzvah? Time to renew this ancient teaching! We will have fewer unwanted pregnancies, and less need for abortion.

Even so, abortion will still be necessary at times-to save the life of the mother, to save the mental health of a woman who has been raped, to allow a woman to live a full life she would not otherwise have if she birthed. And so we need more heroes like Dr. Tiller, who will stand ready to protect this important right. May his memory be a blessing.

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