A Fifth Question for Passover
The Passover Seder offers an opportunity to remember more than just the exodus from Egypt and our desert wanderings. Adding an orange or Miriam’s Cup to the Seder plate or a special reading to the ritual emphasizes our concern for contemporary social justice ills, even as we recite again our historic persecutions and plagues.
This year I propose bringing a Fifth Question to the table: Why should access to reproductive health care be preserved? The proverbial Four Children posing the traditional Four Questions could ask the Fifth according to the distinctive manner of each.
- The Wise Child: What makes this a Jewish issue, and how do our texts and traditions address it?
- The Simple Child: Why wasn’t I aborted?
- The Child Unable To Inquire: Why is this issue important right now?
- The Mocking Child: Why should I care, if it doesn’t affect me?
Rabbis Raymond Zwerin and Richard Shapiro, in an article written for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, address four aspects of reproductive medicine dealt with in Jewish writings: the legal status of the embryo and fetus, the emergence of the soul, conditions permitting therapeutic abortion and those regarding non-therapeutic procedures.
What could be called therapeutic abortion first surfaces in a second century text quoted in the Mishnah. But the Torah offers evidence from Genesis 21:22 that the unborn child is not a legal person by positing that the perpetrator of a miscarriage could be fined but not punished as severely as the murderer of a living person. The Talmud treats the fetus as the “thigh of its mother,” simply a part of the pregnant woman’s body with the potential to become a human being. However, realization of that potential comes with emergence from the birth canal. Judaism’s value for life extends to self-defense. Therefore, pregnancy or labor threatening the mother’s life makes therapeutic abortion permissible.
The genesis of the soul is esoteric and controversial. (How Jewish is that?) Arguments range from the moment of intercourse to when a child begins to speak. Some rabbis safely lump this into “secrets of God” that will only be answered when the Messiah comes. A non-issue regarding abortion decisions among Jews.
Sanction for non-therapeutic abortion is not clear-cut. The pain of the mother offers guidelines here. This standard applies for rape, incest and mental health considerations including potentially suicidal anguish.
However, modern medical technology that affords a preview of fetal illness (including genetic ones, such as Tay-Sachs), HIV-infection, Down’s Syndrome and drug addiction does not provide a license for abortion. Preserving life, like that of the “Simple Child,” doesn’t only apply to the mother, even if the new life will be predictably imperfect.
With the Wise and Simple sufficiently answered, it’s time to reply to the implicit question of the Child Unable to Inquire. Why speak out now, 38 years after Roe v.Wade made abortion safe and legal?
Can the recent budget battle and bills already passed in the House of Representatives leave anyone in doubt about timeliness? The bills gut reproductive choice by aiming to restrict abortion after rape that’s not “forcible,” incest when the female is over a certain age (16 or 18) and even when saving the life of the mother offends the consciences of attending medical professionals. New laws in several states target women’s rights in unique but similarly draconian ways. There’s no enormous constitutional threat to Roe v. Wade coming to the Supreme Court yet, but the prevailing winds are not blowing in the right direction.
Finally, to the Mocking Child and, frankly, to anyone not directly affected and thereby self-excluded from “household of Israel” and the need to care. You may be old enough to remember the back alley or young enough to take the freedoms accessible since 1973 for granted. Either way, is a country that turns the clock back to that time what you want for yourself, for your children or grandchildren—for “the strangers among us”? It’s not just about abortion. It’s about access to family planning, mammograms and other preventive medical best practices. It’s about keeping providers such as Planned Parenthood open. And it’s also about restrictions on private health insurance, including employer-sponsored plans, constraining even the most deluxe coverage.
The Haggadah has taught us to remember and to educate about the importance of life and Jewish tradition in the face of outside threats. No matter what form those threats take.
Linda Frank, San Francisco, is the author of the (Passover-related) novel, After the Auction.