For Jews, Life Begins at Birth

I was shocked when I first noticed a photograph of Dr. Henry Morgentaler on my grandfather’s wall in his Floridian condo. Why did my conservative grandfather have a newspaper cutout of the famed physician who furthered abortion rights in Canada? 

“I didn’t realize you were such a fan, zaide!” I exclaimed. “No, no,” he responded, “that’s my doppelgänger and arch nemesis. People say we look alike, and I never want to be mistaken for him.” He was possibly half-joking, but he was very aware of the death threats Morgentaler experienced as the controversial doctor lived across the street from my family and I in Toronto.  

In America today, access to abortion is under siege. Even though 61 per cent of Americans are pro-choice, a powerful minority overturned Roe v. Wade. The strong objection to abortion stems from the Christian Right and the Christian notion that life begins at conception. 

In Judaism however, Halacha dictates that human life begins at birth. The life of the mother takes precedent over the fetus. According to the Ramban “anything that does not have a human form is not considered a child, and similarly, whatever is not fit to become a creature with a soul, is not considered a child. It is written in the Mishnah that “even if labour has already begun, we kill the fetus to save the mother; once the baby’s head or most of its body has emerged, we do not hurt it, for it is considered a human being, and we do not kill one person to save another.” (Mishnah Ohalot 7:6). 

Nonetheless, just because Jewish law does not forbid abortion, personal circumstances can influence how laws are interpreted and followed. This was the case with my grandfather. 

One Shabbat, while I was visiting my grandfather in Florida, his rabbi gave a rousing sermon in favour of abortion. My grandfather complained the entire oneg. I asked him if he actually opposed abortion, and his response was succinct, referencing the old Jewish joke: “Abortion is fine for the ‘goys,’ but not for the Jews.” Because he witnessed first-hand the centuries long persecution of our people, I knew his remarks were not intended to disrespect women but came from a place of generational trauma fearing a diminished Jewish population. It did not matter that abortion is supported by a faith he loved deeply. My grandfather saw abortion as a threat to the Jewish people, as well as his lookalike Dr. Henry Morgantaler. 

A Polish-born Canadian Jew, Morgentaler was a trailblazer for expanding abortion rights. He deeply understood the sanctity of life and what it means to fight for survival. As a child, he was confined to the Łódź ghetto where his father was murdered by the Gestapo. He was later transported to Dachau and eventually to Auschwitz. When Morgentaler was rescued by the American army the 22-year-old weighed a skeletal 71 pounds. It is a miracle he survived the concentration camps. His mother and sister were not so lucky. 

Morgentaler was one of the pioneers in the world of family planning, amongst the earliest Canadian doctors to perform vasectomies, insert IUDs, and prescribe birth control to single women. 

He began his career in 1955, when abortion was illegal in Canada. As an act of selfless civil disobedience Morgentaler opened his first abortion clinic in 1969, when abortions were still punishable by law unless the mother’s life was in critical danger. 

It was only in 1988 that the landmark case of R. v. Morgentaler fully decriminalized abortion in our country. For almost 20 years Morgentaler put his career and freedom in jeopardy, knowing he could lose his medical practice and be sentenced to life in prison for protecting a person’s right to choose. The Holocaust survivor received countless death threats and was the victim of several violent attacks on his clinic. He was arrested on multiple occasions during the 1970s and even suffered a heart attack while incarcerated. He blamed the attack on prison guards who subjected him to antisemitic maltreatment, which included sending him to solitary confinement unprovoked.  

For my grandfather, these controversial acts by Morgentaler posed an additional threat to the Jewish people. Even after 1988, the famed physician continued to receive death threats. 

On multiple occasions Morgentaler attributed his staunch commitment to reproductive rights to his experiences as a Jew. As quoted in the doctor’s definitive biography by Catherine Dunphy, “the law was barbarous, cruel and unjust. I had been in a concentration camp, and I knew what suffering was. If I can ease suffering, I feel perfectly justified in doing so.” When the Supreme Court declared abortion a constitutional right, Morgentaler shared how Auschwitz fortified him for this legal battle. Nazi genocide taught him that the law is not always ethical. Morgentaler wished for children to be born out of love, not out of forced birth, stating that “well-loved children grow into adults who do not build concentration camps, do not rape, and do not murder.” While I am sure there are murderers and rapists who come from loving homes, I understand Morgentaler’s point. Forcing unprepared, unwilling parents to have children can lead to devastating repercussions on an individual, familial, and societal level.  

Morgentaler might not have been religiously Jewish, but his actions were in accordance with Jewish values. All Jewish movements mandate abortions in cases where the mother’s life is threatened. Many Conservative, Reconstructionist, and unaffiliated Jews support reproductive choice. Leaders of the Reform movement often advocate publicly for abortion access. And while Orthodox Judaism condemns abortion in many situations, Orthodox Union and other Orthodox organizations have aligned themselves with pro-abortion groups in the past to ensure that those whose lives are endangered by a fetus can terminate their pregnancies. Jews are instructed to preserve life at all costs, even if it means straying from the rules of kashrut.      

When the abortion-rights movement started taking off in North America during the late 1960s many leaders in the movement were Jewish including Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judy Rebick and, of course, Henry Morgentaler. These feminists were part of a first wave of activism on behalf of reproductive choice. To find the United States regressing is painful to see. 

When my grandfather and I debated abortion, it was purely a philosophical discussion. Neither of us thought that abortion access was under any real threat in the Western world. I believe my grandfather would be as shocked and dismayed as I am by recent events in the United States. 

Just as abortion rights are not codified into American law, neither are they in Canada. Nothing is legally stopping our Supreme Court from overturning R. v. Morgentaler. While support for abortion can be found across Canada, access varies from province to province. Until 2017, Prince Edward Island prohibited abortions, and today in New Brunswick there are no abortion clinics, only three hospitals will perform the procedure. Abortion in Canada is seen as a healthcare service, yet some parts of our country have chosen to restrict access based on religious values. Jewish support for a woman’s right to choose proves that religion can be on the right side of history. A great deal of work remains to be done to protect reproductive justice for all Canadians, regardless of income, race, place of origin, and gender identity. I pray that we can continue our Jewish legacy of effecting change, making this world a safer place for all who are born into it.

Header image design by Clarrie Feinstein.

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