A Wider View – Another Rabbinic Response

August 21, 2019 by Rabbi Nicole K. Roberts
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As a female rabbi of the Progressive movement, I wish to share where my position diverges from that expressed by the President of the NSW Rabbinical Council in the 18 August 2019 article in J-Wire The NSWRC calls for status quo on abortion legislation

Rabbi Nicole Roberts

Like Rabbi Schapiro, the rabbis of our movement uphold the sanctity of human life.  This is why, as stated in our Reform responsa literature on the subject of terminating a pregnancy, “we do not encourage abortion, nor favour it for trivial reasons, or sanction it ‘on demand.’”[ii]  Our response, however, do present a wider range of halakhic opinion than that contained in Rabbi Schapiro’s statement, and ultimately concur with the “liberal stance” expressed by those poskim (decisors) “who are within the broadest range of permissibility permit[ting] abortion at any time before birth, if there is a serious danger to the health of the mother or the child.”[iii]

That is, there are those within the halakhic tradition “who do not consider abortion ‘akin to murder…’ They would permit it for rape… or to avoid undue pain…  This group also permits abortion when there is serious danger to the mother’s mental health… or when serious fetal impairment has been discovered…. not for the sake of the fetus, but due to the anguish felt by the mother.”[iv]  Therefore, while our movement does not condone late-term abortions, we also do not consider a mother, who seeks an abortion before birth for substantive reasons relating to her potential physical or mental hardship, to be a criminal.  Decriminalised abortion has not led to a “flippant view toward the value of life” among Jewish women, or to “the extremities” of which Rabbi Schapiro speaks. We thus have no reason to believe it would be a “slippery slope” for society at large.  Rabbi Schapiro is entitled to his view, which may be shared by some poskim in our tradition.  However, it is neither the only traditional nor the only contemporary Jewish view on the subject.

Rabbi Schapiro’s “slippery slope” argument takes a dim view of women faced with the agonising decision to terminate a pregnancy.  But only 1% to 3% of these women do so after 20 weeks,[v]and those who terminate at this juncture do so “as a result of severe foetal abnormality,”[vi]“extremely complex cases, such as [the mother’s] life being at risk… or an abusive partner who has prevented her from accessing an earlier termination.”[vii]  His view also overlooks the injustice of socio-economic disparities at play under the status quo, in that “some severe foetal conditions only present at the routine 18-20 week ultrasound, and often require further testing… For women in poverty, the ultrasound that happens at 20 weeks is the first opportunity they have to free access to a chromosomal abnormality scan.”[viii]  Such a view of women and the disadvantaged does not comport with the Progressive movement’s values of egalitarianism and social justice.

I am, as well, deeply troubled by Rabbi Schapiro’s near equating of abortion with recent mass shootings and stabbings.  These remarks should be reconsidered.  To liken a mother’s decision to preserve her wellbeing at a profound personal loss to that of a murderer who exhibits no reverence for human life (including his own) is a much stronger statement than our sages, on any side of the abortion argument, would have condoned.

Rabbi Nicole K. Roberts, Senior Rabbi, North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood NSW

[i]The J-wire article can be found at: http://www.jwire.com.au/the-nswrc-calls-for-status-quo-on-abortion-legislation/?fbclid=IwAR2Hh-aTFwfLKIUa9tRq1xhx-6v_D8ZYZAVOF5Zc3jA6QYwMzrkvUDz7Uho

[ii]The full text of CARR 23-27, Contemporary American Reform Responsa 16, the most recent Reform responsum on abortion, including reference to the halakhic sources, can be found at https://www.ccarnet.org/ccar-responsa/carr-23-27/



[v]The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/aug/19/nsw-abortion-law-the-decriminalisation-reform-bill-explained


[vii]The Sydney Morning Herald: https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/nsw-abortion-law-the-bill-has-passed-the-lower-house-what-s-next-20190811-p52g12.html






4 Responses to “A Wider View – Another Rabbinic Response”
  1. Leslie Silk says:

    Thank you Nicole for writing in such an intelligent and considered way on behalf of women who may be faced with the torturous decision to have to abort a pregnancy. Anyone who could believe that it equates to a “flippant view towards the value of life” has clearly not been faced with such a horrible dilemma and to say so shows an incredible lack of empathy and understanding.

  2. Dan Fuchs says:

    Well said, Rabbi.

  3. Paul Winter says:

    Well said Rabbi Nicole!

    Our movement is progressive, enlightened and compassionate. We deal with the questions of today, seeking answers to fit our ethos into contemporary society.

  4. Raymond Phillips says:

    Rabbi Nicole Roberts,

    thank you for coming forward and expressing your views on abortion.

    I totally agree.

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