What Did the Ancient Jews Believe About Abortion?



Q. So, what do ancient Jews say about abortion?

A. Josephus (flourished 75-95 A.D.)

“The [Jewish] Law orders all the offspring to be brought up, and forbids women either to cause abortion or to make away with the foetus; a woman convicted of this is regarded as an infanticide, because she destroys a soul and diminishes the race.” (Against Apion, 2.202)

Philo of Alexandria (25 B.C.—A.D. 41)

“If a man comes to blows with a pregnant woman and strikes her on the belly and she miscarries, then, if the result of the miscarriage is unshaped and undeveloped, he must be fined both for the outrage and for obstructing the artist Nature in her creative work of bringing into life the fairest of living creatures, man. But, if the offspring is already shaped and all the limbs have their proper qualities and places in the system, he must die, for that which answers to this descriptions is a human being, which he has destroyed in the laboratory of Nature who judges that the hour has not yet come for bringing it out into the light, like a statue lying in a studio requiring nothing more than to be conveyed outside and released from confinement.” (Special Laws III.108-109; cf. Exod 21.22 LXX)

“This ordinance carries with it the prohibition of something else more important, the exposure of infants, a sacrilegious practice which among many other nations, through their ingrained inhumanity, has come to be regarded with complacence. For if on behalf of the child not yet brought to the birth by the appointed conclusion of the regular period thought has to be taken to save it from disaster at the hands of the evil-minded, surely still more true is this of the full-born babe sent out as it were to settle in the new homeland assigned to mankind, there to partake of the gifts of Nature….If the guardians of the children cut them off from these blessings, if at their very birth they deny them all share in them, they must rest assured that they are breaking the laws of Nature and stand self-condemned on the gravest charges, love of pleasure, hatred of men, murder and, the worst abomination of all, murder of their own children. For they are pleasure-lovers when they mate with their wives, not to procreate children and perpetuate the race, but like pigs and goats in quest of the enjoyment which such intercourse gives. Men-haters too, for who could more deserve the name than these enemies, these merciless foes of their offspring? For no one is so foolish as to suppose that those who have treated dishonourably their own flesh and blood will deal honourably with strangers. As to the charges of murder in general and murder of their own children in particular the clearest proofs of their truth is supplied by the parents. Some of them do the deed with their own hands; with monstrous cruelty and barbarity they stifle and throttle the first breath which the infants draw or throw them into a river or into the depths of the sea, after attaching some heavy substance to make them sink more quickly under its weight. Others take them to be exposed in some desert place, hoping, they themselves say, that they may be saved, but leaving them in actual truth to suffer the most distressing fate. For all the beasts that feed on human flesh visit the spot and feast unhindered on the infants, a fine banquet provided by their sole guardians, those who above all others should keep them safe, their fathers and mothers. Carnivorous birds, too, come flying down and gobble up the fragments, that is, if they have not discovered them earlier, for, if they have, they get ready to fight the beasts of the field for the whole carcase. But suppose some passing travelers, stirred by humane feeling, take pity and compassion on the castaways and in consequence raise them up, give them food and drink, and do not shrink from paying all the other attentions which they need, what do we think of such highly charitable actions? Do we not consider that those who brought them into the world stand condemned when strangers play the part of parents, and parents do not behave with even the kindness of strangers? (P117) So Moses then, as I have said, implicitly and indirectly forbade the exposure of children, when he pronounced the sentence of death against those who cause the miscarriage of mothers in cases where the foetus is fully formed…when the child has been brought to the birth it is separated from the organism with which it was identified and being isolated and self-contained becomes a living animal, lacking none of the complements needed to make a human being. And therefore infanticide undoubtedly is murder, since the displeasure of the law is not concerned with ages with a breach of faith to the race. Though indeed, if age had to be taken into consideration, infanticide to my mind gives a greater cause for indignation, for in the case of adults quarrels and differences wupply any number of reasonable pretexts, but with mere babes, who have just passed into the light and the life of human kind, not even a false charge can be brought against such absolute innocence. Therefore those who gird themselves up to conspire against such as these must be judged to be the cruellest and most ruthless of men. The holy law detests them and has pronounced them worthy of punishment.” (Special Laws III.110-119).

Pseudo-Phocylides (50 B.C.—A.D. 50) says that “a woman should not destroy the unborn babe in her belly, nor after its birth throw it before the dogs and vultures as a prey.”

1 Enoch (2nd-1st Cent. B.C.) says that an evil angel taught humans how to “smash the embryo in the womb” (68:18).

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2 Responses

  1. It would have been more appropriate to respond not as a Christian but as to what the OT Jews believed. For instance;
    “The central biblical text which deals with the issue under discussion is Exodus 21:22-23:

    When two men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman so that her fruit be expelled, but no harm (ason) befall (her), then shall he be fined as her husband shall assess, and the matter placed before the judges. But if harm (ason) befall (her), then shall you give life for life.

    The implications of this text are twofold: first, that the mother is considered an independent life, because the penalty for her death is the penalty for murder; second, that the fetus is not considered an independent life, because the penalty for accidental abortion of the fetus is only a monetary fine. Causing the loss of the fetus under these circumstances is an offense, but not a capital crime.

    In the Jewish tradition, only a few texts relate to the fetus, and thus to abortion. The Talmud states that for the first forty days, the fetus should be considered mere fluid in the womb (Yevamot 69b). Elsewhere, the Talmud twice (Hullin 55a; Gittin 23b) describes the fetus as “part of the mother” (ubar yerekh imo; the Latin counterpart is pars viscerum matris), which indicates the dependence of the fetus on the mother and, like Exodus 21:22-23, implies that the fetus has no legal personality of its own. The debate in Archin 7a on whether a condemned women who is pregnant should be executed immediately or after she has given birth seems to confirm that the fetus is not an independent entity, since the commentators tend to recommend immediate execution. Further support is lent by the interpretation given in Sanhedrin 76b on Leviticus 24:17: “If one smite any human person, then one is culpable.” The “any” is understood to include the day-old child but exclude the fetus, for the fetus in the womb is “not a person,” until born. Commenting on this verse, Rashi states that only when the fetus “comes into the world” is it a “person.”

    The pivotal rabbinic text on abortion is found in Mishnah Oholot 7:6.

    If a woman was in hard travail [such that her life is in danger], the child must be cut up while it is in the womb and brought out member by member, since the life of the mother has priority over the life of the child; but if the greater part of it was already born, it may not be touched, since the claim of one life cannot override the claim of another life.

    Again, the fetus is not a person when in the womb, but here the fetus becomes a person once the head or greater part of the body has emerged. It follows that when the Talmud in Sanhedrin 72b states that you are not permitted to murder one person in order to save another, the law is simply inapplicable to the fetus, because the fetus is not a person. Furthermore, the Talmud does allow dismemberment of a partially emerged child when the motherís life is endangered, thus according final priority to the life of the mother over the life of the child. These discussions turn on the technical Talmudic concept of rodef. The term for a potential murderer is rodef, a “pursuer” or, in contemporary parlance, a stalker, one who pursues another in order to kill him. Under normal circumstances, a rodef may be killed if this is the only way in which the life of the intended victim can be saved. Two conflicting viewpoints about the applicability of the rodef principle to the fetus are offered by commentators. Some commentators believe that when it is the child who threatens the mother, then the law of rodef applies, even though the rodef is a minor and so not responsible for his or her actions. Others believe that the motherís life is not being pursued by the child, but by “heaven,” that is, the mother is dying as a result of natural causes, hence, the childís life cannot be made forfeit on the grounds of rodef, but there is still acknowledgement that the motherís life is to be saved at the expense of the child’s life.

    More evidence that Jewish tradition does not regard the fetus as a person independent of the mother emerges in the laws of the Sabbath. Many pages of the Talmud are devoted to the question, “Can you desecrate the Sabbath to save the fetus?” It is certainly permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the mother, but there is much discussion on the issue of whether it is permissible to do the same for the fetus. In Arakin 7a, the commentators decide that if the mother dies before giving birth, the fetus may be removed from the dead mother on the Sabbath because at that point the fetus is considered a person, that is, no longer dependent on the mother. Here we see that the fetus has intrinsic value because the Sabbath may be desecrated to save it (A knife may be carried on the Sabbath in order to aid in the delivery of a child [Yoma 85b]), but the very fact this point was debated shows that the fetus is considered only as part of the mother except in unusual circumstances and, moreover, that a existing human life has precedence over a potential human life.

    Jewish law (halakhah), influenced by the Exodus passage, studied and reinterpreted in every generation has succeeded in guiding Jews on the issue of abortion. The halakhah clearly states that abortion cannot be considered murder, that the life of the mother takes precedence over the life of the fetus, and that the fetus is not a life separate from the mother prior to its birth.

    The Roman Catholic Church view on abortion derives from the third-century BCE Greek translation of Exodus 21:22-23.

    And if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born [miscarried] imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty: as the woman’s husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if it be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life (LXX).

    Obviously, the Septuagint is not true to the Hebrew original. It changes the Hebrew word for harm (ason) into a word in Greek meaning “form, icon,” which ason could never mean, and changes the construction such that ason applies to the fetus rather than to the mother.”

    Much more appropriate and more top the truth. “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

  2. Actually this text is reffering to the unborn child. There were already laws to protect the woman as an independent person. This was specifically about her baby. If the child was born prematurely but did not die, the man was to be fined. If the child died, then it was life for life.

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