Think about the relationship between faith and abortion, at least in the United States, and you might conjure up images of prayer circles at the March for Life, or protesters outside clinics, or a priest giving a sermon on the sanctity of life. Religion is often associated with an anti-abortion stance in the American popular imagination—and white Evangelicals have been encouraging that connection for decades. Now those efforts are culminating in the most disastrous year for abortion access since Roe v. Wade was decided 49 years ago, and in the Supreme Court’s likely reversal of Roe. But many of us working to protect the right to abortion are doing so because of our religious commitments, not despite them.
I’m a rabbi and a scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, which fights to preserve the right to abortion and expand access to the procedure. Our organization’s Rabbis for Repro network includes more than 1,800 Jewish clergy of every denomination committed to supporting abortion access for all. My activism is grounded both in Jewish law and in my tradition’s understanding of our profound commitments to one another.
A story from the Book of Exodus, part of the Hebrew Bible, forms the backbone of Judaism’s formal take on abortion. Two people are fighting; one accidentally pushes someone who is pregnant, causing a miscarriage. The text outlines the consequences: If only a miscarriage happens, the harm doer is obligated to pay financial damages. If, however, the pregnant person dies, the case is treated as manslaughter. The meaning is clear: The fetus is regarded as potential life, rather than actual life.
This idea is underscored in the Talmud, a collection of statements from ancient rabbis. One declares that, for the first 40 days of pregnancy, a fetus is “merely water”—essentially, it has no legal status at all. From the end of that 40-day period until the end of the pregnancy, it’s regarded as part of the pregnant person’s body—“as its mother’s thigh,” the Talmud says. Here, again, the fetus is secondary to the adult human carrying it.
This becomes most clear when a pregnancy or labor endangers the pregnant person. According to a roughly 2,000-year-old source called the Mishnah (the core of the Talmud), abortion is explicitly called for to save their life. The life of the baby comes into consideration only once the head has emerged. But beyond life-or-death situations, Jewish law permits abortion in situations where carrying the fetus to term would cause “woe”—and that includes risks to mental health or to kavod habriot (dignity).
Abortion access, then, is a matter of religious freedom. Jews are permitted to terminate a pregnancy—and, when our lives are at stake, we may be obligated by Jewish law to do so. Government intervention that would prevent the free exercise of these religious tenets constitutes an infringement of First Amendment rights. And as 54 faith-based groups argued in an amicus brief in support of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the clinic challenging the Mississippi abortion ban that could overturn Roe, abortion laws that enshrine specific Christian concepts—“fetal personhood,” for example, or the notion that life begins at conception—trample over other understandings of when life begins. That doesn’t affect just Jews, but also Muslims, atheists, agnostics, and plenty of Christians who support reproductive freedom.
Many secular conversations center on the question of whether abortion is a right. But in Judaism, we talk about responsibilities—to one another, and to God. For me, defending abortion is about our broader ethical and spiritual obligations, as well as the specific ones prescribed by Jewish law. In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites who have been liberated from slavery are commanded to set up systems of care for the most socially marginalized. We are taught to look for the people who are most harmed, and to focus on their needs. And indeed, abortion bans deepen every structural inequality in our society. They disproportionately affect people who are struggling financially and people of color. Limited abortion access provides additional challenges for those already experiencing barriers to accessing health care, including young people, those in rural communities, immigrants, disabled people, and trans men and some nonbinary people. And people who are denied access to reproductive health care are more likely to live in poverty and to remain in abusive relationships.
I believe that we serve the divine when we care for those created in the divine image. And people of all different religious backgrounds are compelled to fight for reproductive freedom for similar reasons. “Abortion justice is holy work for me because it’s aligned with the most sacred values of my faith: compassion, kindness, and love,” the Reverend Katey Zeh, a Baptist minister and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told me. “When I provide spiritual care and accompaniment to someone throughout their reproductive journey, I am living into the call to love my neighbor.” Jamie Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, expressed the same sentiment in a speech in December: “In the Gospel, Jesus tells us the truth shall set us free. Here is the truth: One in four abortion patients in this country is Catholic, and for them, abortion is a blessing.”
People of faith like Zeh and Manson serve as crucial reminders: Being Christian doesn’t necessarily equate to holding an anti-abortion position. In fact, some of the Catholic opposition to abortion may be rooted partly in a mistranslated word in a biblical passage. And other sects of Christianity have changed their stance on abortion over time. In 1971, 1974, and 1976, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention passed resolutions suggesting that the government shouldn’t interfere with decisions about abortion. The reason for the shift since then, whether political or theological, can’t be pinpointed—but if and when the Supreme Court reverses its Roe v. Wade decision, as it’s expected to, we must remember that for many people, safe and accessible abortion is a religious value. I will continue to fight for it, along with my compatriots of every faith—and none—until we can truly live out our obligations to care for one another.