The U.S. Supreme Court’s upholding of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act has elicited the usual cries of protest from abortion rights advocates and, also as usual, they include an assortment of Jewish groups and The New York Times.
That latter institution characterized the term "partial-birth abortion" itself as a "provocative label" for the presumably more descriptive "intact dilation and extraction." As it happens, the Times and the other advocates are correct about the inaccuracy of the term "partial-birth abortion," but not because it exaggerates the repugnance of the procedure in question.
Despite concerted efforts by some to misrepresent the law, its language is stark and clear. It prohibits any overt act, like the puncturing of the brain, "that the person knows will kill" a fetus whose "entire … head is outside the body of the mother or, in the case of breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother."
Thus, it is not abortion at all that the law at issue addresses but rather the killing of a baby whose head or most of whose body has emerged into the world. Readers of the Times’ editorial page, and much of the "mainstream" media, might be forgiven for not realizing what the procedure actually entails.
Nor have the media done a very good job explaining what exemptions the law does or does not contain. Since it does not contain an exemption for the mother’s "health," there is wide assumption — at least from the evidence of calls and e-mails I have received — that even if the mother’s life were somehow threatened by allowing the partially emerged infant to fully emerge, the federal prohibition would stand.
In fact, though, the law contains an explicit exception for cases where the procedure is deemed necessary to preserve the mother’s life.
As to a "health" exemption, the Supreme Court’s majority found, among other things, that if there is any threat to maternal health — a possibility about which no medical consensus exists — "safe alternatives to the prohibited procedure … are available."
Even more troubling to me as a Jew than the misunderstandings of the facts is that a number of rabbis and Jewish organizational spokespeople have asserted that Jewish religious tradition is somehow offended by the recently upheld law. The president of Hadassah, to take one example, has baldly stated that the law "undermines Jewish values."
She and others who have made similar claims are misinformed and, in turn, misinform.
To be sure, the talmudic sources are clear that the life of a Jewish woman whose pregnancy endangers her takes precedence over that of her unborn when there is no way to preserve both lives. That is why Agudath Israel, while we oppose Roe v. Wade’s effective "abortion on demand," has not favored and would never favor a wholesale ban on abortion.
While the matter is not free from controversy, there are rabbinic opinions that allow abortion when the pregnancy seriously jeopardizes the mother’s health. But those narrow exceptions do not translate into some unlimited "mother’s right" to "make her own reproductive choices" — the position Hadassah enthusiastically trumpets.
Moreover, in the specific context of "intact dilation and extraction" — to use the Times’ preferred nomenclature — Jewish law certainly confers no right to kill a live baby whose head, or most of whose body, has already emerged. Indeed, once birth has already occurred, Jewish law makes clear, the newborn child has no less right to live than does the mother.
Stated simply, what the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act prohibits is, in the eyes of Jewish law, little if anything short of murder.
Nothing, of course, prevents a Jew, or Jewish organization or rabbi, from ignoring the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition. But intellectual integrity, if nothing else, should prevent anyone from misrepresenting the content of a law or what Jewish tradition has to say about killing an unborn child — or a born one.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.