Murder is Murder and Abortion is Not

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

So another physician has been murdered for making it possible for pregnant women to actually use their constitutional right and their moral responsibility to choose whether to give birth or abort the fetus.

All honor to Dr. Tiller, who joins the list of martyrs for ethical decency and human rights. His death approached religious martyrdom in the classical sense: he was 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 -- which were to support the moral and ethical choices of women he viewed as authentic bearers of moral responsibility.

There are two real-life cases of abortion that have shaped my own judgment on the practice, in addition to the Torah's only comment on abortion – which makes utterly clear that it 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 full human life has been killed. The one is murder; the other is not. Rabbinic teaching goes further to say that if the continued bearing of a fetus threatens a pregnant woman's life, the community is OBLIGATED (not merely permitted) to kill the fetus in order to save the woman.)

I recognize that some other religious traditions do claim that 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.

One real-life case of abortion that has shaped my views is that my father's mother 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 is that one of my friends and teachers, a great and eminent rabbi, was the child of a mother who fled Vienna after Hitler annexed Austria. His mother was pregnant again 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.

These stories teach me two crucial truths: 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 once again if abortion were criminalized again.

The death of Dr. Tiller was not solely the responsibility of the person who pulled the trigger, though he may well bear alone the legal guilt. There have been diatribes against the doctor that set the scene for his murder. Salon magazine reports that " Tiller's name first appeared on [Bill O'Reilly's show] "The Factor" on Feb. 25, 2005. Since then, O'Reilly and his guest hosts have brought up the doctor on 28 more episodes, including as recently as April 27 of this year. Almost invariably, Tiller is described as 'Tiller the Baby Killer.'"

Tiller, O'Reilly likes to say, "destroys fetuses for just about any reason right up until the birth date for $5,000." "He's guilty of "Nazi stuff," said O'Reilly on June 8, 2005; a moral equivalent to NAMBLA and al-Qaida, he suggested on March 15, 2006. "This is the kind of stuff happened in Mao's China, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union," said O'Reilly on Nov. 9, 2006.

These attacks did not happen in a vacuum. Dr. Tiller was shot in both arms years ago, his clinic was bombed, and threats against his life were legion. I think this kind of verbal encouragement of violence is -- and should be -- fully entitled to protection from governmental suppression, under the First Amendment. But nonviolent action to express the disgust of the moral community is also a legitimate aspect of free speech. It is the support of corporate advertisers that keeps O'Reilly on the air . It would be wholly legitimate for Americans who are disgusted by this kind of incitement to withdraw their patronage from those advertisers until O'Reilly either begins using decent political argument rather than personal invective to support his case, or leaves the air.

What was the special reason for attacking Dr. Tiller with such vitriol? It was the fact that he was one of very few abortion providers in the United States who legally and publicly provided abortions during the last trimester of pregnancy – and the argument that not only are all abortions murder, but that third-trimester abortions are especially heinous. Indeed, Roe v. Wade specifically provided that the states could regulate the conditions under which abortions could be done that late in a pregnancy. And the point is that Dr. Tiller was a law-abiding doctor. Many of his late-term cases involved fetuses that were discovered to be horribly malformed. All were done at the request of women who weighed the consequences of giving birth against those of abortion and made a choice that was legally theirs to make.

I have no doubt that in many circumstances, both the decision to bear and the decision to abort involve profoundly complex moral and ethical values. That is the crux of the matter: Are pregnant women valid bearers of the moral responsibility to make those choices, or must others – perhaps the state, perhaps a murderous thug, or perhaps compassionate and decent other people -- make the decision for them?

President Obama, when he spoke at Notre Dame, focused on the difficulty of these choices and urged that government take action to minimize unwanted pregnancies. Good enough, as far as it went. Yet I wish he had said explicitly what these stories I have told teach me: that women are moral beings, possessed of moral agency and responsibility; and that the lives of women would be endangered once again if abortion were criminalized again.

And I wish that he had expanded on the specific steps necessary to minimize unwanted pregnancies: for instance, that the US 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 part of their religious rearing, especially as their children reach adolescence (and probably for adults as well). In the Jewish community, for example, this should be part of the preparation for bar/ bat mitzvah..

This would in fact be rooted in the ancient rabbinic tradition which 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. Then the rabbis said that instead of checking individuals, they would settle on 13 years and one day. 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!

Indeed, it is time for all the religious communities that refuse to hand over all moral decision-making to the state, to make it possible for their own members of all generations and all genders – not only women -- to make wise decisions about their own sexual and reproductive lives. Only as a result of ever-deepening ethical education can those decisions be deeply informed – as they should be -- by the ultimate wisdom that God has implanted moral responsibility in us all.


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